Leadership Basics: What to Do When You Don't Have All the Answers
A Note From The Editor
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Leaders are supposed to be all knowing -- at least when it comes to their own company -- aren't they? That's why the three most hated words in leadership are simply: "I don't know."
After all, if the leader doesn't know, who does?
Of course no one is expected to have all the answers. Still, many leaders are unwilling to admit when they don't know something about their business. Instead, they fret, pretend and sometimes deny.
There are beneﬁts to admitting you don't have the answers asked of you. Being honest increases your credibility. No rational human expects anyone to know everything. It can be refreshing to learn that leaders don't always know it all. This makes it easier for your team and others to relate. What's more, nobody can help know-it-alls. People who admit they could use guidance greatly increase the likelihood of getting good ideas from others.
But that doesn't make admitting you don't know what to do any easier. When running your own company, how should you best handle a situation in which you simply don't have the solution? Here are four approaches that can help you turn not knowing into an opportunity, rather than a loss:
1. Focus on what you know you need to solve the problem.
You can't get help if you can't deﬁne what you're looking for. Frame the situation: What is it you either don't know or need to know more of? Start by deﬁning the challenge you're facing and what you need in order to solve it. Great leaders don't have all the answers, but they usually have the ability to ask better questions.
2. Draw from other people's experience and expertise.
Leaders don't often face truly unique challenges. Odds are someone has already met the dilemma you are facing -- or a similar one -- and has insights that will beneﬁt you. The next question is: Who might already know this?
When you think "who," focus on three things: understanding, experience and expertise. Understanding means the person you consult for advice is personally familiar with your challenge and can provide suggestions within that context. Even the best advisors are limited if they don't truly understand what you are dealing with. Experience is proof of ability. Entrepreneurs often turn to successful entrepreneurs for advice because those individuals have learned ﬁrsthand what does and doesn't work. Expertise is a combination of experience, study and insight. An expert can give you ideas based on their area of focus, whether or not they've experienced what you're facing. Of course, the best advice comes from those who possess all three qualities.
Two cautions: First, beware of the faux expert who has lots of ideas but is short on real-world experience. Second, good advice is usually delivered after some deliberation. A quick, off-the-cuff response may not offer the depth of insight you need.
3. Ask more and better questions.
Inquire more deeply to truly unearth important ideas. When you improve the quality and quantity of questions you ask, you increase the potentially valuable information you receive. Don't just ask an expert for their opinion. Dig deeper: ask them why they feel that way, whether they've counseled others with a similar situation, and what happened as a result.
4. Do something, even if it is wrong.
The one good thing about wrong decisions is that they normally provide valuable feedback very quickly. When you know what doesn't work, you can get on to the next possible solution.
Sometimes a timely response requires doing something, even if you know it isn't the perfect solution. For example, responding to a customer's crisis -- or even a simple complaint -- should be thoughtfully considered, but an imperfect response quickly taken is better than a perfect response that comes too late.
Leading your team into the future is never risk free, but there is consolation in knowing there are some smart things you can do, even when you don't know what to do. And, of course, there are beneﬁts to simply admitting that you're human.