Leaders Don’t Need to Have All the Answers

We expect our leaders to know the answers. After all, isn’t that why they’re the leader?

This simple and seemingly benign assumption is increasingly outdated, and harmful to modern companies, organizations, and communities trying to achieve positive change. In fact, it is important for contemporary leaders to acknowledge when they do not know the answer (which is usually!), and to view an important part of their role as framing problems and asking for help. This requires adjusting some of our fundamental beliefs about leaders and leadership.

Today’s change leaders are increasingly confronted with problems for which no one knows the answer. But instead of turning to their communities and asking for help, they often try to fake it til they make it. They cram late into the night, rack their brains, and lead at the very edge of their learning curve. They do it because the pressure to know feels so intense, and their own self perception of what leadership looks like is so ingrained. They assume their role is to resolve the questions, fix the problems, make the decisions, know the answers.

I get it. I used to be the case and point for this kind of leader. This only changed because I was finally confronted with a situation for which there simply was no decent answer. I was forced to turn to my community and pose a problem without any solution at all. The result was more powerful than I could have imagined. People responded, mobilized, contributed ideas, opened doors, and together we reached an outcome better than I could have initially imagined or achieved on my own. This experience changed how I think about change leadership forever.

Now I regularly advise and help other leaders frame questions, and ask for help. I help them be okay with not knowing. I help them frame and manage a process through which a community comes together to find the best available answer to a potentially unknowable problem.

Standing up in front of your team or community and admitting that you don’t have the answers they are looking for is hard, especially at first. There are ways to make it easier, and more impactful. Here are a few quick tips for leaders considering this path for the first time.

  • Focus on how you frame the problem. This matters a lot, and can make the difference between productivity and panic. Instead of wracking your brain trying to solve the problem and present the solution, spend your time thinking about how to frame the problem in a clear and productive way. The question needs to be posed in a way that sends people down a constructive path.

  • Shape the process. Throwing a challenging problem out to a group without any ground rules or action plan is another mistake. Establish a period of learning and inquiry, with some structure. As Chip and Dan Heath say, direct the rational rider along a clear path. Take ownership of the process as you give up more control of the solution itself.

  • Create a clear end point. Identify at the beginning when you expect to know or decide. Address the consequences of deciding too late, as well as the potential consequences of deciding too soon. Be clear about who the final decision maker is, and why. Emphasize the need to explore multiple solutions, and open as many doors as possible.

This kind of change leadership is the kind most suited for today’s world. I have consistently seen it lead to better solutions. But if nothing else, it’s more honest, and that in itself is not nothing. So much of leading through change is ultimately about building trust.

Unfortunately, this kind of change leadership is not widespread. In many places we are still stuck in a traditional expectation of the leader’s role. A friend who worked at one of the big five consulting firms told me that they spent time there helping leaders operate effectively at the very edge of their learning curve. I’m sure they did an amazing job, but it seems like exactly what we don’t want to be encouraging.

Rather than helping experts sound authoritative and confident in areas where they’re not, we need to make it safe for leaders to say they don’t know, and ask for help. It will lead to better outcomes for everyone.