Climbing a haunted stairwell - and other lessons on strategic leadership

2 minute read

Yesterday, upon the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there, He wasn’t there again today, I wish, I wish he’d go away… (Mearns, 1910)*

Persistent uncertainty haunts the modern leader like an obstinate ghost. Even in the rare moments when a simple decision lies before me, the spectres of the past loom.

‘Embrace ambiguity!’, some say. But, as anyone who has tried will tell you, you cannot embrace an apparition. Those who try end up looking foolish.

Instead, we 60 professionals of the Executive Diploma in Organisational Leadership 2022 class expanded our appreciation for the unknown, the forces of the existing yet-to-exist, and the way these influences impose a temporal presence on the present strategy.

In module three, The Strategic Leader, we came together from around the world to discover, debate, and pay respect to the increasing complexity and interdependencies of strategic execution. The time together included a study of networks in dynamic geopolitical landscapes, ambitious mergers and digital transformations across global conglomerates, and observations of century-old institutions and their enduring qualities.

Each student-leader came away with a different valuation of our shared study and the implications for their organisation. As with many discussions that highlight volatility, some found solutions in the familiar anchors of purpose, values, and culture. No doubt, organisational identity proves critical to success when the spectre of ambiguity roams the halls.


For myself, having witnessed first-hand how culture, purpose, and mission must evolve or dissolve in response to acquisitions, category creation, and macroeconomic pressures, I sought something more durable.

In that search for something robust, I paradoxically returned to my own ghosts. The aspects of who I am as a leader and my own discomfort with ambiguity—my own staircase dilemma. My resolution came in making peace with the untamed nature of a shifting strategy, finding certainty in my own history of execution amid volatility. Thereby avoiding the strategic paralysis that keeps many wishing upon the stairs that things were different rather than moving forward in the knowledge that every staircase plays host to countless unwanted visitations.


Reference: *Mearns, William Hughes (1899) Lines written for The Psycho-ed, an amateur play, in Philadelphia.