Leading when I don’t know: a new Logos, Ethos and Pathos for Disruption Leaders


Didier Marlier

June 10, 2017

From Disruption to Engagement

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Unless we are Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, the chances are that we feel increasingly concerned about leading in a context that we do not fully master nor understand. Who can claim that they have a clear grasp on all new technologies (3D copying, 4.0 Manufacturing, Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, Digitalization, Epigenetics, Internet of Things, Nanotechnology etc.) and their strategic implications for their business? I call this: Leading when I don’t know!

One of my ex colleagues, inspired me the perspective here below:

Ask yourself, how one used to lead in the post 40’s when, in Asia and Europe, everything was to be rebuilt, or the 80’s when the illusion was that every decision could be purely rational and the shock that hit us when we started to realize in the 2’000’s that our old recipes were out of date. Today (and for quite some time I believe) we live under a regime of dynamic, fast changing objectives (Environment) and to be re-invented methods. Welcome to the V.U.C.A. World of the Disruption Economy.

I recently was in Rio, exploring with 40 experienced C.E.O.s of foreign and local multinationals, how to lead under such chaotic and complex circumstances. Little by little three pillars of “Disruptive Leadership” emerged. We named them, Logos, Ethos and Pathos (and I would be very grateful if you, dear readers could suggest other terms for that trilogy).

Logos: Context Leadership and Intelligent organization

In disruptive times, Logos evolves:

  • From Content to Context Leadership: Content leaders are efficient when they know or when their people expect them to know. But in a Disruptive context, they cannot pretend that they know. They need to shift their style as per indicated here below:

  • From being a brilliant individual leader to creating an intelligent organization: In front of the challenges of the knowledge explosion, XXIst century leaders will develop intelligent and agile teams. You may remember the metaphor of the brain: our brain (read top leadership team) receives 11 to 13 billion bits of data/second (read the complexity of knowledge we are supposed to ingurgitate). It can only transform 50 to 70 bit of data/second into meaningful information (leaving 12’999’999’930 bits to be stored in our passive, unconscious, instinctive or intuitive intelligence). The same happens with leaders and we can’t stretch our intellectual capacity much further. Imagine now if other organs of our body were able to be aligned on its Purpose (to keep us alive and as healthy as possible) and became capable of interacting with the trust and blessing of our brain and without its control? Suppose my stomach, mouth and hands refuse to feed me when they calculate I sufficiently ate/drank, without the brain having to interfere? That would create an “intelligent body” and not just an intelligent and integrative brain. Consequently, our brain and body could absorb much more data and transform it into meaningful information. Imagine if your organizations were becoming more intelligent, purpose driven with fully trusting leaders?

Ethos: Exemplarity and Psychological Safety

“Disruptive Ethos” is based on three pillars:

  • Exemplarity: Exemplarity generates trust and trust is absolutely fundamental to lead people when they “know that you don’t know”. Many politicians in Belgium, Brazil, France, UK or USA are experiencing the necessity of their nations to be lead by example in those troubled times…
  • Psychological Safety: Google’s Holy Grail discovery that teams who have created Psychological Safety in their culture and behaviours are far more agile, creative and resilient than fear driven ones is groundbreaking. Disruptive leaders will create Psychological Safety around them.
  • Challenge and Support: Psychological Safety sounds very much like Czickszentmihalyi flow or performance zone in the model we have adapted from his thoughts. Flow creating leaders use the two behavioural levers of Challenge and Support to maintain their people into the Performance Zone.

Pathos: The Sense of Purpose

Do you remember the highly illustrative looks on the faces of the basketball players of Efez Anadolu, invited to the… Opera by their President, to celebrate their new Title. Look again at the same faces when suddenly the Purpose of that invitation becomes clear… The same happens to your people when you send them the new Roadmap by e.mail or PowerPoint them to death in a one way broadcasting style… Particularly in times of doubts and insecurity, such as the Disruption Economy, our people need to understand the Purpose of the leader and the organization that they chose to follow.

In this short intervention (shown some years ago), retired Lt. General Paul van Riper (ex-commander of the US Marines) explains why a strong sense of Purpose is critical for a mission to succeed:

Refusing to lead, when we don’t know is called abdication. Pretend to know when we don’t, will destroy the trust our subordinates have in us. What about leading through those three levers?



  1. Ingrid van Bussel


    I can’t help thinking that most leaders (including myself) have never mastered or understood fully the context in which we were operating over the last decades. The sense of mastering what’s going on is conforting and therefore eagerly accepted – however mostly false… Most leaders already deal with the unknown in a different way than with the known part – so it’s just a matter of shifting more often into the “unknown context” leading mode….

    Now on your request: as an old-school European kid, I’ve studied ancient Greek in the 80s – and Logos, Ethos and Pathos seem to me remaining as valid as ever.
    The essence of these concepts do not change over time – but the translation of essence into concrete behaviors has historically changed when context changed. This is not the first time mankind has to adapt to changing context.
    Instead of looking for substitute words for Logos, Ethos and Pathos, what if we look for adjectives that translate everlasting essence into modern context? In this world of increasing uncertainty, emphasizing that the essence of these concepts remain valid might facilitate bridging the change in leadership behavior…

    I’ll give it a thought and see if I can come up with something more concrete…

    Enjoy your travels. Mine back to Europe again for another month. If you pass The Netherlands, let me know!

    Safe trip,

  2. Duncan Stirling

    “Leading when I don’t know” is so common now… as many feel paralysed in the face of so many disruptive forces. The solutions can be the same… Engage the three levers of success: Logos, Ethos and Pathos… and increase the cadence and find an associated Kairos – an appropriate action of the moment – no matter how small.

    By cadence: we mean the rhythm of the organisation – cyclists and runners know it as the speed of the up-down motion of the legs!

    The examples above, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos… They didn’t have a “how” to execute but had a vague idea of where things were moving… They don’t necessarily have a mastery or understanding of the “how” – but the direction and cadence is everything. The Kairos are these small step-by-step actions to achieve these objectives.

    For Elon Musk, it started with knowing that people will need to make trusted electronic payments. I am sure they didn’t have a final vision as to “how” when they started PayPal. Then for Tesla etc, he knew that electric vehicles are going to be the future for transportation of people and small goods – and the big car companies were without Ethos and Pathos in this area of electric vehicles… Similarly, this was the case with solar roof tiles – the Dow chemical company has had them for years, but without any perceived Pathos, or any Ethos of saving the planet.
    (Now, with regards to SpaceX… I have no idea about what he’s trying to do there… but he was the first space tourist so obviously knows a lot about that!)

    Jeff Bezos knows that customer analytics is everything. You can see that from his horribly ugly, yet very effective, web portal. He couldn’t have known “how to” do it in the beginning… but he kept the cadence up – in the face of pretty bad financial results, believing that the investment in tiny bits of data on customers would be worth it. A very small Kairos which got through the carnage of the dot-com disaster.

    Paul van Riper is now best known as the commander in the famous Persian Gulf war games in the early 2000s. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millennium_Challenge_2002
    The key thing there was his maintenance of the high cadence of his forces beneath him – leading to a significant victory over his opposing forces. In that case, using very low-tech means of communications, motorcycle messengers, WW2 style signal lights… The point is that there is a key Kairos at play. Actions were taken. They may have seemed small, and low-tech, but they added up to a famous victory.

    To sum it up, when faced with a “leading when I don’t know” situation, most likely you are looking at a team that is slowing down and it could really do with raising the cadence.

    Pulling the engaging leadership levers, we would need to use Logos & Ethos in developing a strategic perspective and focus externally. Then look at complementary behaviours in the following areas and ways to push team members:

    Maintaining technical professional expertise

    Foster innovation
    Communicate powerfully
    The 3 Cs: Consistency, Concentration and Co-operation

    Well, who could beat the Efes basketball fans! The examples here can be quite specific to the situation.

    Taking action. It may be small, simple, low-tech etc, but as Jeff Bezos & Paul van Riper show, it can all add up. This needs to be identified and started.

    There is one aspect that Aristotle’s prism doesn’t seem to include, and that is bravery: Thárros (Google tells me that this is Greek for “bravery”!)

    In this, we need to encourage all team members to be courageous, to establish stretch goals and to take initiative

    In my view, courage is cultivated by doing something that scares you every day. It is enhanced by having the opportunity to fail, and grows by failing faster.

    Leaders need to remember this and hand their subordinates challenges that meet these criteria every day. From their point of view, the best analogy is to imagine that the company is a ship and that every failure blows a hole in the hull. It is important for leaders to distinguish whether a failure is going to make a hole in the hull above the waterline or below. A hole below the waterline is fatal. Above, it can be repaired. It’s not about handing total control to the subordinates and risking mutual self-destruction!

    It’s just about upping the cadence and ridding organisations of any “leading when I don’t know” feelings of paralysis.

    A lack of organisational Kairos, as expressed by Glen Hansard:

    “…I don’t understand these people
    Who say the hill’s too steep
    They talk and talk forever
    But they just never climb”

    The Frames – Star Star ** https://youtu.be/eMccPJqyg0o via @YouTube

    BTW: I think it’s ESTP – (same as Donald Trump?!? 🙂 )


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