There is no shortage of advice on how to lead effectively. The simple fact, though, is that the process is rarely easy. Decisions must always be made, and sometimes delegation and consensus—both powerful elements in building a positive culture—are not suitable courses of action. The bottom line is that the buck stops with the one who has the title or is in a position of authority, whether we like it or not. When it comes to leadership, the person making the final decision is often second-guessed if there is a lack of communication or things don’t go as planned. I shared the following in a blog post back in 2017:
It is difficult to adequately prepare any leader for the challenges they will face as well as the decisions that will have to be made. There are so many unique variables that just cannot be taught. It’s challenging work knowing that difficult decisions sometimes will have to be made. Leaders know that it is not the work of one person that moves an organization in a positive direction but rather the collective efforts of all. The premise of every decision and action has to be geared toward the “We” instead of “I .” It’s our experiences that help all of us to develop into better leaders, coupled with the support we get from colleagues. From experience, we learn that trying to be right all the time only makes the job exponentially harder.
One of the most uncomfortable situations a leader can confront is when people are looking for answers on the spot and the leader doesn’t have any. This was all too common during the pandemic and will continue to persist as disruptive forces change the landscape of life and work. Throw in other societal pressures impacting education and you have one big hot mess on your hands. Let me be clear: No one has all the answers, no matter how many books they have written, keynotes delivered, or years of experience under their belt. Here are some ideas on how to lead when you don’t have the answers:
When it comes to effective leadership, honesty and vulnerability are invaluable assets. Trust and respect are developed when a leader is candid about not having an immediate response or knowing what to do at the moment. Unless there is an emergency, be candid; it will pay off greatly down the road.
Take time to find out
While being candid is a great start, there must be a commitment to following up with a tentative date to provide an answer. The nature of the question or problem posed will determine how much time is needed to gather the right information or develop a plan for action. Telling someone you will get back to them and then either forgetting or disregarding the challenge only points to a lack of leadership that could have negative consequences down the road.
Develop the right questions
While questions are more important than answers, people look to a leader to have them. However, these can be a means to an end in this case. Using inquiry can help a leader dive deeply into complex issues. These can be used for reflection or asked to the person posing the question to glean more clarity.
Leverage what you know
Experience might very well be your greatest asset, equipping you to solve problems or placing you on the right path to obtaining the required information. If you are unsure, admitting that you don’t have an answer at this time provides you with an opportunity to sift through accumulated knowledge and experiences. It may also allow you to provide a partial answer.
Ask a colleague
Support networks are invaluable, and every effective leader has one readily available. There is no possible way that anyone can have enough experience to be able to answer every challenging question or solve each complex problem that comes along. Reaching out to colleagues to glean their expertise and advice will always be a sound decision.
Lean on your PLN
While looking to colleagues for advice is great, utilizing a Personal Learning Network (PLN) provides access to countless other leaders who can provide priceless guidance when you don’t have an immediate answer. Social media tools such as Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook allow you to ask any question and receive responses from all over the globe. Be sure to add hashtags (#) to get even more eyes on your request for help from people you aren’t even directly connected with. If you don’t have a PLN, consider creating one today. For tips and best practices, check out this post.
All of us need to be ok with not knowing. As a leader, admitting you don’t know is a sign of strength, not weakness. While it might be easy to ignore or attempt to come up with a response on the fly when you don’t have an answer, the risk you are taking can erode the confidence others have in you. Put time and effort into not only finding the best answer but developing relationships with those you serve.