It is the role of a leader to set clear objectives and provide clarity on the path to success. While there is no debate that providing clarity is a fundamental leadership trait, it is also essential the innovative leader be confusion tolerant.

Confusion tolerance is the ability deal with ambiguity and lack of clarity while creating a path to a unique answer or solution.

It is human nature to want clarity around the problems that one must face. Most people want the fastest or simplest path to resolution and are willing to compromise strategic thinking to explore the unknown in pursuit of an innovative solution.

The first answer is not always the best answer. In business, it could also be the most common answer that could lead to non-differentiated approaches to problems that do not bring unique value to the world. A confusion tolerant leader has the patience not to rush to conclusions and does not fear complexity. This type of leader understands certain problems require more provocative pursuits for resolution; they do not let ego influence their need to declare a premature, and often-obvious answer.

Being confusion tolerant is about giving an idea time and space to breathe, develop and evolve. It is about challenging the obvious while curating conflict from disparate threads of thinking. It is not always for securing more analysis to help a decision but should be about encouraging unique thinking to find the innovative path to solving the problem.

Confusion tolerance should not lead to delays in making decisions or finding solutions. On the contrary, it should embrace an aggressive timeline to enable the leader and the organization to rapidly explore, debate and ultimately pursue. That said, the confusion tolerant leader should have the courage to let ideas grow.

While it is important for a leader to be able to tolerate ambiguity, it is still essential they provide clarity to their teams. This may require they protect the rest of the organization from this “confusion” and ambiguity and only communicate the clear path forward. The reality is most people just want clarity and exposing them to what is happening “behind the scenes” is not necessary and may introduce chaos into the confusion.

Challenge yourself to be a confusion tolerant leader. Embrace ambiguity when it arises. Put a process around how to resolve the confusion. Don’t rush to the obvious answer. Encourage conflicting ideas as you find resolution. Ultimately, provide clarity to your organization. As a leader, you should be an innovator and a disruptor of the status quo. By being confusion tolerant, you will provide a path to inspirational leadership and unique value to the world.

Originally published at On The Wire, a blog from Highwire Group helping leaders and their companies embrace transformative thinking and innovate fearlessly.


Arguably one of the most knowledgeable intrapreneurs around, Alex Gonzalez has helped lead transformative innovation and build growth processes for the likes of GE and Equifax, among many others. Today he’s the founder and managing director at Creative Growth Ventures, where he splits his time advising, training and consulting with executives, corporate innovation teams and high-growth startups.