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Admitting what you don’t know is key to effective leadership

Being an infallible leader is bad for business.  

Admitting what you don’t know is key to effective leadership
[Illustration: Rawpixel]

Old notions die hard. Over two decades teaching business students and coaching executives, I’ve seen firsthand how outdated notions of leadership still persist. Leaders are imagined to always be in control and ready with the right answer.  

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Leaders are often idealized in the media, our educational systems, and our social systems. A strong leader is portrayed as an unflappable expert in practically everything. When we then become leaders, we shoulder that burden. We begin to believe having authority also means being infallible. Since infallibility is an unattainable goal, it makes sense that we create distance, resist admitting mistakes, and protect an image of ourselves as always at the ready.  

But more than simply being false, this notion of leaders is limiting. It’s past time to start acknowledging leaders are human like everyone else. Leadership is challenging. It requires a multitude of skills that traditional education often doesn’t prepare us for and that the very companies that promote us often don’t help us develop.  

Old notions of leadership also limit an organization’s capacity to be successful. If you and your team believe you’re the only one that has all the answers, they will defer. You run the risk that the team just becomes an echo chamber, reinforcing one person’s opinions without discernment. Being an infallible leader is bad for business.  

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What’s the alternative? Acknowledge your humanity as a leader through vulnerability and authenticity.  

Focus on questions, not answers

We’re faced with greater uncertainty and more change than ever. The likelihood of having a ready-to-go answer or solution to all the challenges we face has never been lower. Leaders who strive to have the answers will not only stymie their team’s creativity, but also they’ll stay stuck in outdated models of thinking and acting that hinder positive outcomes. Leaders must flip the script, shifting mindsets from leader as “answerer” to leader as “questioner.” 

Productive inquiry (sometimes called inquiry-driven leadership) is one method of dealing with uncertainty. To start, ask catalytic questions. And what are catalytic questions? They’re questions that are productive instead of just open-ended—they start with “what” and “how” to help frame problems and move toward positive outcomes.  

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Leaders have to abandon the instinct to immediately answer a question with their best guess or idea. Instead, they should first consider reframing the problem with a follow-on question. For example:  

  • What do you think we should do next?
  • How would we maximize X? (e.g., profit, speed to market, or employee engagement) 
  • What’s stopping us from reaching a loftier goal or outcome?  

Leaders must also be confident and competent enough to open up discussions that may go in unforeseen directions. If you ask catalytic questions but then dismiss all responses and revert to the path you intended to pursue all along, you’ll damage trust and credibility. This hinders the possibility of fostering a creative and productive team.  

Own mistakes publicly

Being vulnerable and authentic as a leader also means admitting errors. Too often, leaders feel inclined to sweep aside missteps to protect their image. They may fear that admitting to mistakes will cause others to lose faith in them, but research suggests that trying to hide things doesn’t work. People can see when someone’s putting on a show, and, beyond failing to protect their image, it actively discredits them.  

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So, if your team knows you’ve made a mistake anyway, why not lean in?  

Declare the mistake as soon as possible to all those involved. This can be challenging, but don’t give in to nerves and ramble. Instead, state the nature of the mistake succinctly and apologize if relevant. Where you should spend the most time is determining what caused the mistake. If this is part of typical behavior on a team, they’ll likely jump right into dissecting the mistake and trying to solve any related problems. Acknowledging the past is important, but productive teams will focus on moving forward.   

Embrace smart failures

In addition to being an inevitability of innovative organizations, failure can be a great learning experience, a launch pad for future success, and a spotlight on systematic challenges that had gone unnoticed. The key is making these “smart” failures. 

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To enable this, leaders must foster two key conditions among their team. First, they must create an environment of psychological safety. The team must know that smart risks (made with as much analysis and research as possible given the timing and situation) that end in subpar outcomes won’t totally crush them. This isn’t going to happen just by saying it, though, so walk the walk and watch your response to smart risks that don’t go as planned. The more publicly you applaud the effort and focus on the learning and growth phase of the loss, the better.  

Second, leaders must conduct after-action reviews focused on learning from any major project or initiative. These reviews need to be a consistent part of the team culture, not just when a project goes awry. They’re opportunities to highlight earned knowledge, make necessary adjustments, and reward effort. 

Truth drives commitment

By asking catalytic questions, owning-up to mistakes, and creating a culture that embraces smart failure, leaders illustrate their own humanity and recognize the humanity and vulnerability of others. They create teams driven by commitment, not fear. Leading doesn’t mean omnipotence or infallibility, it means succeeding despite not having all the answers and knowing all the right next moves.  

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Karen Hebert-Maccaro, PhD, is the general manager of Education at Morning Brew. 


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