Humans are intrinsically wired to fear uncertainty -- and yet uncertainty allows entrepreneurs to imagine anything is possible

Entrepreneurial leaders embrace uncertainty with courage and we assume all natural leaders are born with an innate capacity to tolerate uncertainty. 

An intriguing new study challenges this view. It reveals that not all leaders have the capacity to tolerate uncertainty well.

Instead, the mark of a "born" leader is that the capacity to tolerate uncertainty--whatever that capacity might be--does not change when the leader is given responsibility over others.

How a leader decides

Researchers from the Zürich Centre for Neuroeconomics in Switzerland recently put a group of forty volunteers through a series of decision-making tests after measuring leadership ability from both real-life contexts and questionnaires.

The tests assessed how likely everyone was to lose confidence in a decision when the outcome of the decision affected others as well as themselves.

While everyone became more careful when deciding for others, non-leaders became distinctly more cautious than those with high leadership scores.

The researchers wondered what was causing this to happen. Were non-leaders more afraid of blame? Did they have more sensitive personalities? Were they less able to tolerate uncertainty?

Personality, risk tolerance or sensitivity to blame did not separate leaders from non-leaders. Neither did baseline uncertainty tolerance, in itself.

What mattered instead, was to what extent this baseline shifted when they discovered their decision would also affect people other than themselves. 

It's not about uncertainty--but a shift in uncertainty

Any decision is fraught with a degree of uncertainty. 

The amount of uncertainty we're prepared to tolerate seems to shrink as soon we realize a decision also affects other people. We suddenly need to feel more certain.

But people with high leadership scores don't experience this striking shift in uncertainty tolerance.

They operate to a similar standard of certainty, whether deciding something for others, or for themselves, and this trait protects them from the discomfort most people feel when taking risky decisions for others.

Are you wired to lead?

According to the study, the relative discomfort we feel when deciding something for others, our "responsibility aversion", reflects our innate potential to be a leader.

If you want to test your own responsibility aversion, here's a simple test.

You're about to place a bet on the outcome of a horse race.  Horse A is risky but a bigger potential win than Horse B, who is a safer choice. You have two friends beside you as you place the bet. They are no more qualified than you are but pooling your knowledge might improve your decision.  

1. You're placing the bet for yourself. Out of ten, how confident do you feel making the decision by yourself? 

2. Now you're placing the bet for all three of you. Out of ten, how confident do you feel making the decision by yourself? 

If your scores in 1. and 2. match, you're likely "wired" to be a leader.