Coaching // Leadership // Career

What Happens When Leaders Say They Don't Know?

Managers answer questions. Leaders ask the curious questions. I was working with a leader in an industry that is being torn apart by the dogs of digital disruption. The hunting pack of digital dogs were not only tearing away at their business, simultaneously they are chewing chunks off their clients’ business.

They were facing growing threats from existing industry competitors, whilst fending off new industry entrants with faster and cheaper digital alternatives.

“The role of a creative leader is not to have all the ideas; it's to create a culture where everyone can have ideas and feel that they're valued.”  ~ Ken Robinson

Over a period of 6 months working with their leader, Kate, she came to realise what was holding her business back wasn’t their clients or their competition, or even the disruption from digital alternatives. Through her own reflection and admission what was holding the organisation back was her mindset.

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During our 180 days together as we danced with digital disruption, Kate realised rather than competing from a position of knowing her existing industry, she decided to explore with me the kinds of questions she wanted to ask, but was too embarrassed to admit she didn’t understand the questions - let alone the answers.

“Paradoxically it became quite powerful to admit – ‘I don’t know’ – It gave me permission to explore, learn and create new possibilities”

Three months into the journey, as Kate stood in front of her entire organisation to explain her journey and outline her approach to embrace the strengths of her organisation and amplify them through technology because she didn’t know - it gave permission for the rest of her organisation to admit what they thought was wrong and what they didn’t know. And finally Kate was starting to become a leader vs. just a manager.

In the next 90 days, this announcement and admission helped bring the organisation together in a common discussion about “we don’t know all the answers but as a group we can get closer to progress”.

Through a series of structured meetings and informal discussions (developed through executive coaching), electronic and face to face, Kate simply posed a series of powerful and insightful questions that helped her organisation navigate its own next steps.

  1. Imagine if we couldn’t fail – what would we do differently today?
  2. If we co-operated with our competitors and customers – what would be different about the products and services, we offer to our clients or our competitors?
  3. What questions should I be asking as a leader that I am not currently asking?

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In their HBR article Brooks, Gino and Schweitzer explain “Individuals perceive those who seek advice as more competent when the task is difficult rather than when it is easy, when people seek advice from them personally rather than when they seek advice from others and when people seek advice from experts rather than from non-experts or not at all.”

So are you brave enough to admit what you don’t know as a leader?
The results will surprise and delight you, your team, your organisation and your customers. As one of the participants of my Dancing with Digital Disruption Program said recently
“To me the greatest benefit is that you think about me and what I need to develop and stretch me to do so. It is also evolving so it's a bit like the ever ending game I don't feel like there is an end, you can never stop learning.”

*This post was originally published on Linkedin.

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Oscar Trimboli

Oscar Trimboli

Author of Breakthroughs, Professional Speaker and Mentor working with clients to achieve growth within their organisation, for their team and with their leaders.