I Don’t Know and That’s Okay: Leadership Isn’t About Having All The Answers

It’s often assumed that a leader needs to be all-knowing. But I question — does this notion actually hinder a leader? As a leader, you are the captain of the ship, but your eyes can’t be everywhere at all times. You need to trust that your shipmates will do their jobs, allowing you to do yours. 

If you’re faced with a challenge you’ve never encountered before, it’s okay not to know how to handle it. Admitting you don’t have the answers is a lot better than pretending you do. Wouldn’t you prefer a physician say This type of surgery isn’t my specialty. Let’s find someone who is an expert on this matter to assist rather than him wing it in fear of looking weak or not in control? In these scenarios, admitting you need assistance or that you rely on someone else’s expertise isn’t a weakness. Instead, it shows the power of collaboration and your ability to build a strong, diverse team. 

Saying I Don’t Know Can Make Your Business Stronger

Have you ever been in a situation where you thought of an improvement or a different approach to a problem but you bit your tongue because you didn’t want to offend your leaders? Too often employees keep their ideas to themselves in fear of overstepping and incorrectly assuming leaders have all the answers already. This isn’t to say every meeting should be a free-for-all, or that I don’t know should be used as an excuse for incompetence. Instead, highly effective leaders create a culture of ownership and radical candor. True innovation comes from collaboration, something that is infringed upon if people are afraid to speak up or fail. 

We’ve all heard the expression — Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime. While being available to support your team while providing them with your vision seems like it would be a valuable asset — a great leader should be able to make tough decisions — there’s a difference between providing solutions and guiding your team to victory.  This article beautifully shares how always giving the answers can do more harm than good. As a leader, you don’t want to just solve problems as they arise, but instead, ensure fewer issues occur over the long haul. Ultimately, you want those you lead to be able to do their jobs without you. If you hire talented individuals to help but you don’t trust them enough to do their job, you could end up doing the work for them, so are you really getting any help? 

Don’t Fake Knowing It All

We’re often told to fake it ‘til you make it in fear that admitting that you don’t know what you’re doing will come across as a sign of weakness. Weakness, however, is saying you can handle something without the confidence to back it up. It takes strength to become vulnerable and admit you’re unsure. But, people are relying on you, right? Letting people know that you don’t know is a lot better than pretending you have answers when you don’t. 

Hope is not a strategy and this method of hoping for the best could lead to nothing getting done. It could also backfire if the wrong choices are made or actions taken — this frequently results in an even bigger mess that’ll require more of your energy, insight, and time. Imagine if, instead of expecting your employees to trust you blindly, you admitted you didn’t know. What would happen? Revealing you don’t know something and appreciate their help would expose your vulnerability, sure. It would also show them that it’s okay to speak up and ask for support when needed. It could instill trust between you and your team.

Asking The Right Questions

Just admitting that you don’t know isn’t enough. What you say and do is what will define you as a leader. Take, for instance, I don’t know, you figure it out. This is entirely different from, I don’t know, let’s figure it out. The latter shows that you value their opinion and want to collaborate to identify a solution. But how do you know if you’re asking good questions? Regardless of the industry you’re in, there are universal ways to make sure you involve others in the conversation and give room for them to be open and honest. Some simple questions include: 

  • What do you think we should do? Is there something I’m missing? 
  • If you were in my position, what’s something you would change about how we do things? 
  • Have you ever encountered something like this before? Do you have any feedback or advice for me? 

These future-oriented questions show your willingness to listen. They show ambition. They invite collaboration. Asking questions versus providing answers pushes your employees to better themselves, encouraging them to think beyond and be a part of the solution. To do better — isn’t that the goal of every leader? For further reading on asking the right questions, I recommend this article, which gives excellent examples of big questions about business, as well as this article that shares how you as a leader can push your employees to find the answers themselves. 

Even if you know the answer, I encourage you to take some time to hear what others have to say. Not knowing is saying yes to going outside of your comfort zone. Simply put, people look for leaders who inspire them to be better, not tell them what to do. As a leader, you don’t have to know it all. If you did, why would you need a team in the first place? Remember, if two brains are better than one, think about how powerful it is to have an entire team alongside you.