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How to lead without having all the answers

Lead without answers

Yvette Gyles DirectorIn this blog, =mc Director Yvette Gyles shares the secrets of leading without knowing everything.

Recently, I have been running a lot of training programmes for Future Leaders. These are experienced managers or experts, looking to develop their leadership capability. Sometimes they have people management responsibility, and sometimes they need to lead people through influence rather than authority. But there seems to be a similar thread running through the minds of potential leaders: I’m not really a leader. I do not have the skills / rights / abilities to be doing this. In short, I’m an imposter.

I asked a few groups what they thought they were missing. Many of them described a sense of being overwhelmed, and not being able to make decisions confidently. Knowing there isn’t an obvious way forward or a simple answer can be paralysing.

One participant told me:

‘I’m an IT relationship manager. That means I don’t manage staff – I manage the relationship non-IT people have with IT people. It’s a tough one, because at the end of the day, everyone just wants their gadgets to work and then forget about them. But when things go wrong, people can get so frustrated. I get really worried about this when there is a system failure that I don’t understand. Or when we have new projects or programmes, and decisions are needed from me as the leader. I don’t know what the technical issues are, or how to explain them, let alone resolve them, or make a critical decision’. She went on to say that she felt like a fraud – because she did not have the answers and people were looking to her to show them the way forward. Not knowing was holding her back, and being worried about not knowing was preventing her from having the impact at work she wanted to have. She is not alone.

Often managers and leaders are created because they are experts at a thing. And that thing is something they understand really well, can manage well, and make decisions about. Stepping into leadership then requires a whole lot of other skills. Where knowing all the answers has gotten people into a new role, they now need to rely on not-knowing to get by. And this is one of the paradoxes of leadership.

Leading team

Great leaders are comfortable in this space. They know that they don’t need to know everything. But what they do need to know is how to find out answers, challenge others to find solutions, and be curious enough to explore issues. It is only then that decisions can be made.

The answer is to lead with questions, not answers. Be curious before rushing into decisions.

Try this 10-question approach:

  1. What are we trying to achieve?
  2. Do we have a clear intended outcome?
  3. Where are we now?
  4. What are the causes of this problem / situation?
  5. How does this issue relate to other work, situations or issues we have?
  6. Who do we need to consider or involve?
  7. What facts and data do we have / not have?
  8. What criteria would we be looking for, in a successful approach?
  9. What would our values tell us to do?
  10. What other specific questions do we need to ask and answer to make a good decision?

Leadership can be tough and uncomfortable. Some decisions are hard. Some decisions won’t always be popular. But if you know you have asked and answered the right questions, you can be confident in the conclusion that is reached. You will be comfortable to occupy a curiosity-space, rather than a know-it-all space. In addition you can explain to others how the answer was reached, helping them to understand the decision.

We explore strategic decision making in more depth in our Strategy Toolbox training programme. And if you are a Future Leader and want to learn about other areas of leadership, read about the Leadership Practices Inventory.

Visit the training programmes page to browse all the management and leadership programmes we offer.

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Yvette Gyles

About Yvette Gyles

Yvette specialises in personal effectiveness, change and innovation, and leadership development. Before joining =mc, she worked in HR for several years in both the private and charity sector as...

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