Simon Terry

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Leaders don’t know

Every leader faces a challenge. People expect them to know the answer.

Knowing as a leadership challenge

Every day in each leadership interaction whether with one person or thousands of people the same moment occurs. People look at their leader and hope that the leader has the answer. The question is irrelevant. The leader is expected to supply the answer. The leader is expected to make things easier by taking the problem away. In this moment, a leader’s authority is tied to their capability to perform as an answer delivery machine.

Leadership doesn’t work that way. Often supplying any answer is exactly the wrong response. Supplying an answer can disengage, foster work avoidance or leave the leader holding all responsibility going forward. It can be a lonely and challenging place to be trapped in a question against the weight of expectation of the team. 

The pressure to supply the answer and be a source of all expertise is a common factor in the imposter syndrome many leaders experience. Not knowing enough to answer all the questions makes people doubt their capabilities. The feeling that they are an imposter is more than a thing. Imposter syndrome is almost an epidemic.

Why leaders don’t know

If you don’t feel some doubt at leading in a time of great change and complexity then you are extraordinarily talented and well informed. Just take care that you are not one of the leaders who are either delusional or pathological There are some reasons why knowing is a challenge: 

  • Leaders shouldn’t know – role: A leader’s role is not to be an answer person. Their role is to create conversations that engage, deepening understanding, set context and shape direction. Leaders need to hold others in tension so that they do the work necessary to move towards answers.  If you are providing answers all you can expect is compliance or at best agreement. You won’t get engagement or creativity.
  • Leaders can’t know – context: No matter how well they measure their business, no matter how deep their expertise, a leader can’t have all the context required to make a good decision. They should be focused on other things most of the time. They will have a different context to the person on the spot with a problem.
  • Leaders shouldn’t know – waste: Every time you stop to ask a leader everything comes to a halt. The process of asking takes time. That time could be better spent solving and building the team’s capability in the process. Even if the leader does know the answer, that time and the process required to extract information is a waste.  You can’t create agility with a bottleneck of a leader.
  • Leaders can’t know – uncertainty: Often the answer is not clear and will only be revealed in action. Requiring a leader to declare a certain position or outcome in this case is pointless and only serves to undermine the leader.
  • Leaders shouldn’t know – capability: Giving answers rarely teaches people how to find their own. Leaders need to build their people’s capability to answer, learn & lead themselves

Knowledge is a flow

Leaders don’t need to know a particular stock of knowledge. Leaders need to know how to help others to share and develop knowledge as an ongoing flow. Then leaders need to help people translate knowledge to action.

  • Teams know some: In a majority of cases when asking a leader what to do, the person asking has a well-formed view of what to do. They have the context. They understand the challenge well. With a sense of authority, they would have acted by now. If the team doesn’t know the answer itself, they likely know where to start.
  • Stakeholders know more: Leaders who help their teams engage externally with the system & stakeholders around the business, enrich the team’s understanding of what to do next.  What a team is missing, the system around will be able to add. In the conflict between the answer of the team and the broader stakeholders is exactly where the problem and the insight lies.
  • Knowledge is evolving: Knowledge needs to be constantly tested and updated in action. Leaders can make sure that teams understand to track and learn from the experiments that they make applying knowledge. The lessons from those experiments move everyone’s insight forward. 

Next time people expect you as a leader to supply all the answers, lead them & their stakeholders to engagement with better questions instead.


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