The Leader’s Paradox: Why Not Knowing Is Quite Alright

We like to:

Have it all worked out.
Be “on top of it”.
Feel in control.

Conversely, we don’t like to:

Not know what to do.
Be completely out of our depth.
Look stupid or incompetent.
Feel vulnerable.

The intense internal and external pressures placed upon leaders to be ‘strong’, ‘powerful’, ‘convicted’, ‘confident’ and ‘having all the answers’ can be overwhelming.

Sure, that perception might have washed when the world was static, simple, slow-moving and less complex.

But that ain’t the world we live (or lead) in now.

Driven by technology, the internet, social media and globalisation, not to mention the fact that what people value is changing; the problems leaders face in today’s business world are complex, unpredictable and sometimes downright chaotic.

So, what do leaders need to stop doing?

1. Treating the complex as simple. Sometimes, to get away from the discomfort of thrown-ness, fuzziness or metaphorical fog, we can completely misdiagnose the problem all together.

2. Positioning ourselves as the Oracle. You don’t need to be the all-knowing, all-seeing, problem-solving, answer-supplying, super-freakin’ genius. You’re not Google.

3. Holding the reigns. It’s OK to let go of control sometimes.

And, what should we do instead?

Learn to sit with the anxiety of not knowing. Even when it’s REALLY uncomfortable. Sometimes, you won’t have all the facts you would like to make a decision. This is where trusting your intuition, using your “sensing” muscles or even talking it out with a trusted person (or group of people) will help.

Be comfortable with not being in control. Recognise the illusion of control is just that, an illusion. At best, control is fleeting. Focus instead on ‘noticing’ if you need something to replace control.

Develop your “sensing” skills – intuition, EQ, and SQ are all examples of this. I  love Karl Weick’s description of sensemaking – “Sensemaking is navigating by means of a compass rather than a map.”

Claim vulnerability. Stop pretending you know when you don’t. Admit when it’s crap. Fess up when you stuff up. Ironically, when leaders demonstrate this level of honesty and vulnerability, it usually creates a greater level of trust and connection. Bunker (1997), a respected academic on vulnerability and leadership, nailed it when he said –

“Expressing vulnerability becomes an important leadership component when it comes to connecting with others at a basic level of humanness.”

Practice mindfulness. Not convinced on the scientifically proven benefits of meditation on leadership? Watch this…

Become more collaborative in your leadership style. See here for the reasons why collaboration is key – and some tips for getting your collaborative swag on.

Develop self-awareness. Understand what triggers you, when you are getting in your own way, your strengths and how to tap into them when faced with the seeming abyss of not having the solution.

Deep down, we know we don’t have ALL the answers.

Great leaders aren’t afraid to say, “I don’t know…but lets find out together.”

If you want to explore this concept more, check out the book Not Knowing by Steven D’Souza and Diana Renner.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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