To say that being a leader these days is challenging would be a major understatement. The challenge is no less at any level, from team leader to functional manager to chief executive.
Consumer trends, tech startups, government regulators, and external factors are disrupting industries across the board. Employees demand a strong sense of purpose, flexibility in the workplace, opportunities for advancement, and a commitment to sustainability.
Now more than ever, leadership raises more questions and ambiguity than it provides answers and clarity. The fact that the stakes are higher than ever isn’t really helping. It’s only natural for many of us to feel like we’re falling behind and unable to answer the demands of the role.
So… what’s the solution?
We think it’s about letting go and remembering that—as a leader and a human being—you don’t have to know everything.
As authors Steven D’Souza and Diana Renner point out in their 2014 book Not Knowing: The Art of Turning Uncertainty Into Opportunity, the solution to these volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous times may lie in learning how not to know.
The Limits of Knowing
In 2008, during a briefing by academics at the London School of Economics on the financial crisis, the Queen of English asked: “Why did nobody notice it?”
In a letter to the Queen in response to her question, economist Tom Palley responded that the crisis was in fact predictable and predicted. It was the economics profession becoming “increasingly arrogant, narrow, and closed minded,” Palley argued, that led to the catastrophic chain of events the year before.
Expertise, in other words, can be misleading.
When circumstances change and the conventional knowledge is no longer useful, knowing everything and having all the answers, as it turns out, can be detrimental.
This has important implications for anyone in a leadership role.
Embrace Not Knowing
From childhood through school through college, we are taught that knowledge is what gets us ahead in life. We enter the world of work and knowledge, especially as interns and junior employees, continues to be what sets us apart.
It’s only when we step into our first managerial role that we understand that knowledge isn’t enough. Because people turn to their managers when knowledge doesn’t provide an easy answer.
A leadership role, on a team, functional, or organizational level, takes the ambiguity to the next level:
Organizations put a premium on leaders who can navigate uncharted waters, be the first to surf the waves of change, and respond in ways that strengthen the entire organization.
As a leader, it’s critical to understand that existing knowledge may not be useful or accurate for addressing new challenges. Dare to leap into the dark, rejoice in the unknown, and approach challenging situations not with the temptation to know the answer from the start, but with the desire to find it out along the way.
Focus on Finding Out
Leaders don’t have to know everything. And as tempting as it may be, pretending to know everything can be counterproductive to your success in the role as well as to your organization.
The desire to always have an answer can cause you to fixate on assumptions and ignore reality, misguiding your team, function, or organization to failure even when the evidence that your hypothesis was wrong was right in front of you.
Leave behind the unhealthy obsession of always having to have an answer. Adopt the principles of agile leadership and develop a healthy obsession with wanting to find out the truth, however the situation defines it, instead.
Set a clear ambition for the “Why” and the “What” and be explicit about how you will measure success, but leave the “how” to your people. Help them break down large, complex problems into small, solvable challenges that they can work through one by one.
Encourage them to seek out feedback from customers and uncover insights from data. Be ruthless about dropping what no longer works and adopting what produces results.
No, leaders don’t have to know everything. But they’re expected to be able to help their teams, functions, and organizations navigate any situation. When in doubt, an agile mindset and willingness to leap into the unknown can help you and your structure go far.