David Wilkinson (ambiguity expert)

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David John Wilkinson FAHE (born 24 April 1959) is considered to be one of the foremost experts and authors on how people deal with Ambiguity and Emotional Resilience / Psychological resilience.[1] He is the originator of the Modes of Leadership concept which correlates ambiguity tolerance, risk aversion, emotional resilience (Psychological resilience) and thinking systems and in 2009 The Metus Model and strategy for developing emotional resilience in organizations.

Early life[edit]

Wilkinson was born in Huddersfield, Yorkshire in the UK to Mary Doreen and David Wilkinson. He failed at school but travelled widely especially in Africa with his parents and younger sister Liz. His mother died in 2010 and his sister died a year later in June 2011 of unrelated conditions. Until University he was largely self-taught with periods in schools both in Africa and the UK.

Early career[edit]


After school, due to his lack of school qualifications he joined the Army in 1975 and served in Northern Ireland during the late 1970s as an NCO in the Royal Military Police, performing counter-terrorism duties in Londonderry and other locations.


In 1980 Wilkinson joined the UK police (Cumbria Police). He was involved in the civil unrest and riots in Liverpool 8 or Toxteth in 1981 and the miners strike of 1984 as a PC. Promoted to DS in 1986 and inspector in 1990. In 1990 he was chosen as Director of Studies at the then Police Central Planning Unit and later was promoted to Head of Quality Assurance as Chief Inspector in National Police Training. During this time he was responsible for Command Level Public Order Training and was part of the Gold, Silver and Bronze command development team. Much of this work was focussed on preparing senior police leaders (gold and silver) to deal with serious civil disturbances and other such ongoing and fluid major incidents. He retired from the police due to an injury in 1996.

Academic career[edit]

Education and studies[edit]

His first degree was in Psychology, obtained from the Open University. During this time he became known for a series of experiments he devised on aggression and video games. He then won a place at the University of Oxford where he conducted Masters and Doctoral Studies on the acculturation of police officers which involved the creation of a new research process-time lapse reparatory grids. Additionally he has an executive coaching qualification from the University of Cambridge.


Wilkinson started his academic career at the University of Oxford as a part-time lecturer. He quickly became a senior lecturer at Oxford Brookes University in 1996. In 2001 he was made Head of Professional Development at Cranfield University where he conducted his initial research into leaders' reactions to ambiguity and published his first book[2] in which he first postulated the idea of the Modes of Leadership. During this time he was heavily involved in developing and delivering training for disaster management and post-terrorist event leadership around the world through the Cranfield University Resilience Centre. David Wilkinson's unique facilitative teaching style at University has won him many plaudits, to the extent that he is often found teaching lecturing skills to fellow lecturers around the world. He currently lectures at a number of UK Universities including: Oxford (Medical Sciences Division), Oxford Brookes (Business School), Cardiff, York, Southampton, Reading, Liverpool, Liverpool John Moores. He is a lead facilitator and exercise director at The National Crisis Leadership Centre in Kent, in the UK.

Research and Theories[edit]

Modes of Leadership[edit]

Best known for his work on leaders' reactions to ambiguity, David Wilkinson itemized those reactions into 4 (originally) and now 6 Modes of Leadership. Each mode is a system of thinking or series of perceptions. Wilkinson considers that the way people think and how they perceive the world alters their relationship with ambiguity, risk and uncertainty. The original 4 modes published in 'The Ambiguity Advantage' are:

  • Mode One - Technical thinking and perceptions
  • Mode Two - Co-operative thinking and perceptions
  • Mode Three - Collaborative thinking and perceptions
  • Mode Four - Generative thinking and perceptions

Ambiguity Continuum[edit]

This was a device Wilkinson constructed to explain the relationship between ambiguity, risk, vagueness, uncertainty and chaos. Additionally it describes how leaders' reactions and perceptions create different outcomes in different situations. Wilkinson also uses it to explain the perceptual connections between certainty and chaos and what he calls the 'Paradox of Certainty' and the 'Paradox of Chaos'.

Emotional Resilience (E.R.)[edit]

A key element of his work has been the connection between ambiguity tolerance and the individual's emotional reactions to uncertainty and their perceptions of risk. He has carried out a number of studies in this area and makes a clear distinction between emotional resilience and emotional intelligence. A lot of his current work is focussed on helping people become more confident in difficult and ambiguous situations. He writes about and runs workshops that show people how to develop emotional resilience and reduce their fears, nerves and anxieties and deal with difficulties and make decisions with greater confidence.

Metus Model & Strategy known as the Fear to Flow Model[edit]

Developed largely on the back of his work with Emotional Resilience, Wilkinson's Metus (fear of change) Model & Strategy(2009) explains what happens in organisations during change events, how the fear of change develops and describes a strategy for increasing emotional resilience in organisations and getting organisational populations to engage with change. This is now popularly known as the Fear to Flow model.

The Ambiguity Chess Game[edit]

Wilkinson developed a form of chess to teach his students the effects of ambiguity and show them how to solve problems in ambiguous times. This has since become known as the Ambiguity Chess Game and is now used in university business schools around the world.

Current work[edit]

He is the founder and Director of Centre i (Centre for innovation, inspiration and influence) in Oxford, UK. Wilkinson is also the founder of The Fear Course in the UK. Wilkinson also works for the British Council around the world helping to improve educational provision in developing countries. He was made Chairman of the International Therapeutic Standards Authority in August 2011 until 2015. He lectures at The University of Oxford Medical Sciences Division, The Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development, Oxford Brookes University, The University of Cardiff and The University of Liverpool. In 2015 Wilkinson founded and became Editor-in-Chief of The Oxford Review[3] In 2018 Wilkinson became Chair of Epiacum Heritage Trust CIO.

The One Billion Pound Coach[edit]

In 2014 he became known as the 'One Billion Pound Coach' in the financial services industry after he coached a team in Switzerland through the uncertainty of losing their chief negotiator to a rival firm in the middle of a bidding process. The team he coached went on to win a £1.6bn investment contract.

Research Interests[edit]

Wilkinson's current writing and research is focused on:

Media Appearances[edit]

Wilkinson makes frequent appearances in the UK, US and global radio, news print and television shows, as an expert in the field of leading in crisis and difficult situations, especially with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and other news outlets. Additionally he is frequently quoted in news print. He has spoken on the topics of policing public order situations (BBC 5Live), coping with disasters (ITN, CNN), emotional resilience in a crisis and turbulent situations (BBC, ITV, Channel 4, CBS, CNN, Al-Jazeera, Oman News, Saudi Business, Financial Times etc.). He gave the Keynote speech at the 2011 ACPO ACPO (Association of Chief Police Officers) conference at NPIA NPIA (National Police Improvement Agency) Ryton-on-Dunsmore, entitled "When in doubt, fool yourself you are getting better". He also presented sessions to the annual ACPO conference on decision making and ambiguity in 2012, 2014 and 2016. In 2016 he gave a keynote presentation at The British Academy entitled "Agile Leadership as Next Generation Management Paradigm" which was voted as one of the top three presentations given.[4]

Academy of Higher Education[edit]

David is a Fellow of the Academy of Higher Education (AHE)

The Oxford Review[edit]

David is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Oxford Review [5] which was set up to close the gap between academic research and practitioner knowledge in the areas of leadership, management, organisational development, change and transition, Human resources and human resource management, organisational learning, decision-making and work psychology.

Charity work[edit]

David is Chair of the Board of Trustees of Epiacum Heritage Trust CIO [6]

See also[edit]


Further reading[edit]

  • Grint, K. (2007) "Learning to Lead: Can Aristotle Help Us Find the Road to Wisdom?" Leadership.2007; 3: 231-246
  • Wilkinson, D.J. (2007) Leaders cause more problems than they solve." Chapter in "Air Force Leadership: Changing Culture." Pages 137 - 147. RAF Leadership Centre. ISBN 978-0-9552189-5-8
  • Wilkinson, D.J. (2009) Emotional Resilience - what it is and what it isn't. Web Article
  • Wilkinson, D.J. (2009) Emotional Resilience, emotional maturity and the dog with one spot. Web Article

External links[edit]