When I was chief operating officer at Delta Air Lines, I was "the guy with the binders."

At Delta, I'd spend hours studying how the network ran. I'd pore over maintenance logistics. I knew every schedule. I saw myself as the person who knew the business better than anyone else.

I would do my best to keep all those details in my head. But just in case I forgot a detail or two, I carried my trusty binders—thick folders filled with every conceivable kind of data I could reference at a moment’s notice

My sense of self-worth was wrapped up in those binders. I knew people looked to me as a leader with visibility into everything, someone with the power to diagnose any problem and dictate a clear, data-driven solution. I was celebrated for it.

Like so many people, I believed that's what modern leaders needed to be: someone with more knowledge than anyone else, someone with a brilliant vision of the future, someone who knows precisely how to move an organization forward with absolute certainty—in other words, someone who can impose order on chaos.

But I was wrong.

That's why at a TED talk I am giving today, I will introduce myself to audience as "a recovering know-it-all CEO." I will share what I've learned about leadership since joining Red Hat—and hopefully inspire others to think differently about the role organizational leaders should play today.

The truth is that the world is just too full of uncertainty—too fast-moving, and too unpredictable for anyone to be able to anticipate and control everything. Leaders today need to realize this, and recognize that leadership is no longer about control, compliance and clairvoyance.

People working in today's information-rich, dynamic contexts don't need leaders who think they know everything about prescribing the "best" paths forward. They need leaders who help them sit more comfortably (and sleep more soundly) in a more ambiguous world. Today, people don't need to be "controlled." They actually need to be agitated—coaxed into productive, difficult conversations about the unknown so they can collaborate on possible solutions.

It's not an easy shift. Frankly, most leaders are uncomfortable giving up their sense of control and living with ambiguity—especially those leaders who've spent years imposing structure on chaos and see that as their primary means of adding value to their organizations.

But if leaders are going to foster innovation in their organizations, they'll need to make that shift. Innovation is by definition something that's unpredictable—so learning how to lean into the unknowable, how to get more comfortable with uncertainty, and how to trust everyone in the organization to discover solutions is the only way to cultivate it.

Because you won't find a plan for your organization's next great innovation in a binder. Trust me. I’ve looked.

(Explore how open principles are reshaping organizational culture. Read the Open Organization book series.)

Jim Whitehurst is president and chief executive officer of Red Hat.

 

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