I don’t mind sharing that I am an excellent student. I am eager to learn. I study. I prided myself on my “straight A” average from Grade 1 through college. I enjoyed having the answers to the test. And when I didn’t have the answer, I was clever enough to deduce a logical answer and “play the odds.”
Moving into the workplace, I was careful about perpetuating that same approach. Study hard. Prepare. Anticipate the questions so that you have answers should questions come up. Don’t be caught in situations where you don’t have an answer.
And I was not alone. Leaders around me worked hard to have the answers. To anticipate the questions they may be asked and to prepare their responses. To avoid, at all costs, looking like they didn’t have the answers.
This belief that leaders are all-seeing and knowing, that they have all the answers, that they will “save us” is engrained in our cultural narrative.
Cultural narratives are a funny thing. They have a meta-message supported by a host of micro messages. Together, they become quite pervasive. They become so much a part of the narrative that few challenge them. Often, those who do are seen as heretics or outcasts are shut down, mocked, or ignored.
And so, the narratives live on and on and on. In addition to no one challenging them, social institutions begin to be built around them. The ideas are taught in school. Books, TV, and movies reinforce the idea. One generation passes them on to the next. And the ideas get reinforced and seen as “truth.”
Some of our cultural narratives about leadership and knowing include:
There are answers to our questions, and smart people have the answers.
The education system in the US is built on the premise of teaching the “known” – with the answers in the teacher’s head (or in the back of the book). There are answers. You either get it right or wrong. Memorize the content, regurgitate it on the test, and get graded on your ability to recall.
Don’t get me wrong. Some things do have specific answers. Some facts are helpful to memorize and have easy access to.
And yet, some of life’s most essential and compelling questions have no easy answers.
Leaders are all-seeing and all-knowing.
The great leader myth is strongly engrained, from myths and legends to our current symbiotic relationship with leaders. There is a belief that leaders are all-powerful, all-knowing, and willing to sacrifice for the good of all.
This narrative creates an untenable and unachievable burden on the leader, who is human, not supernatural. Coach leaders at any level, and you’ll immediately see the intense and unachievable pressure leaders put on themselves. It keeps them up at night. It paralyzes them. It prevents them from really being themselves or taking risks.
Leaders will save us.
People yearn for the savior that appears on the white stallion, fights evil, and restores right. If we believe leaders are that “savior”, we can sit back and wait for that person.
And when the inevitable happens, and we see that our leaders don’t have all the answers, we are absolved of contributing to the situation. There is blaming. Finger-pointing. Resignation. None of which are healthy in the long term.
The Yin and the Yang of Wanting to Have the Answers
At times, working hard to have the answer was an extraordinarily helpful behavior. The desire to have the answers propelled me and others to observe, learn, study, and grow. I use that knowledge daily and am grateful for my education and those who have shared knowledge in ways I can access it.
Yet, at other times, that strong need to have all the answers was counterproductive. Sometimes, it is very dysfunctional, creating these effects:
- Leaders putting extreme pressure on themselves to always appear in control and in the “know”
- Guarded behaviors, positioning, and deflection
- Fear of stepping into the unknown, innovating, or trying new things
This belief that leaders had (or should have) all the answers also resulted in those they led to:
- Wait for the leader to come up with the answers, the direction, the plan, and the solutions to problems.
- Not using their personal ability to problem solve, to learn, to create their own answers
- Finding (and at times exaggerating) examples of when the leader failed to have the right answer – resulting in cynicism and a loss of credibility for the leader
New paradigms are needed in today’s complex, interdependent, and fast-changing world. Leaders who don’t need to know it all but do need to know how to quickly make sense of a situation, enlist the support of others, and find a way forward. Leaders that foster empowerment. Leaders that leverage the collective wisdom of the group – and are vulnerable enough to drop the façade that they are infallible.
What if we embraced a new cultural narrative? One that centered on these beliefs:
- The role of the leader is not to KNOW everything but to KNOW HOW to find a way forward by using the talents of their teams.
- Everyone has something to contribute when we are faced with an unknown situation.
- Collectively, between leaders and their teams, we can share ideas, thoughts, and wisdom – and find a way forward.
- Asking (and exploring) a provocative and rich question can be more valuable than having a quick answer.
- It’s OK not to know – It’s OK to experiment, It’s OK to ask others for their ideas, It’s OK to try something new and unknown.
- It’s NOT OK to pretend you have the answers when you don’t.
My current thinking is this:
In a fast-changing, unpredictable world where knowledge is exponentially growing, we are best served by asking good questions – rather than striving to have all the answers.
I’ll leave you with a list of juicy questions that I think all leaders can use:
- What DO we know about our current situation?
- What is the possibility we face?
- What would someone in another business or industry do when faced with this situation?
- When have we faced something similar? What worked? What didn’t? What did we learn that applies to our current situation?
- What is something we can do to get smarter faster?
- What would an easy solution to this situation look like?
- Who do we know that would bring an outside perspective to help us think differently about our situation?
- What is the best possible outcome we are striving for?
- Who else is impacted by our decision? What would they advise?
- What is a good next step?
A final question for you: What might happen for you if you let go of your need to know and got more comfortable with trusting that you knew how to work with others to find a path through complexity and ambiguity?
If you and your team would like to learn the art of asking good questions to find new solutions – let’s talk about Evergreen Leadership’s Questions Only Retreat or a workshop on The Art of the Question.