Say "I Don't Know" More

Leadership is not about having all the answers, in spite of what our television heroes would have us believe. Why would you even want to work somewhere where they tried to pretend that they did? In an environment where leaders feel compelled to know all the answers one of two things happens, they have to micromanage your efforts to maintain the illusion of control, or the are flat out wrong and then acting on it.  


If you want to really grow your company or team start with “I don’t know.”

Make peace with the fact we live in a busy world with over 7 billion people, amazing technology and at the expense of offending any physicist (or Rene Descartes) reading this, we don’t really know anything for sure.

Saying I don’t know is a great way to flip the classic management pyramid where subordinates push information and “leaders” make decisions.

There is a danger in relying on leaders to know everything, that model often creates leaders that delay or bottleneck progress because they are consciously or unconsciously trying to maintain the value of their position. Being the “decision maker.”

A real leader’s job is not to make the decision, it is to get “10” subordinates* all making decisions, aligned with a larger goal or objective. It’s to create an environment where people develop and grow so they can make decisions and create opportunities that one single leader would not have time to see.

There is simply not enough time in the day to do it all, the number 2 comment I get from new leaders is lack of time. So flip the pyramid, create time. Use inquisition, questions and dialogue with your team, building maneuver space for yourself to think, and then use that time thinking about how to grow your people more. Don’t provide answers, provide questions.

Empowering your people by not having all the answers and instead asking questions will drive higher employee engagement as your people build the habit of looking for solutions and understanding issues. Your entire organization builds its situational awareness. This does come at a cost. In today’s world not knowing can wrongly be interpreted as weakness. Movies, books and TV would have us believe great leaders had all the answers, after all isn’t what what made them great?

Get over it!

Real leaders provide direction and inspiration, they don’t solve everyone’s problems.

The greatest leaders worked to cultivate greatness in their subordinates. They did it with, humility, questions and sometime even stories or parables. An easy and popular example is Abraham Lincoln, famous for his parables in response to people looking to delegate upward and have him solve their problems. Instead Lincoln would provide space for growth and then allow people to grow around him.

Give it a try, the next time someone brings you their troubles to solve, start with “I don’t know” and then use questions to help them get on the path to finding the answers.

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*10 means others, fill in whatever your table of organization looks like.