Leadership development

Leaders, it is okay to say, ‘I do not know’.

July 29, 2020


Many organisations (including ours) had a very ambitious plan for 2020. Somehow the resonance of the year made it seem special. All of you have probably heard the phrase “By twenty-twenty, we will…” (end it with your own version of progress, achievement, success etc).

Twenty-twenty clearly had its own plans for itself and leaders in this new world are faced with an unprecedented set of challenges. Factors related to talent and strategy, the market, stakeholders, or targets are almost completely unpredictable and yet, leaders are supposed to have all the answers; to know with certainty how the business should pivot; where people should be refocused and what needs to be left by the wayside.

Is that a fair yardstick to measure leaders by? What happens to leaders who take on this pressure of having to always know what is right? Eventually, the leader with the superhero cape on is going to burn out, feel disconnected with the team or not always have ready solutions. If you are a leader reading this, know that it is almost impossible to stay updated, know everything and have answers to everything. Know that it is ok to say, ‘I do not know.’

How often have you heard that leaders need to be strong and be ‘a rock’? As leaders and managers, one is taught to project a certain image of confidence, competence and authority. While as leaders we might try to play the part and appear stoic, intelligent and in control of the situation in order to be respected by others, truth be told, pretense often has the opposite effect. Just think of how uncomfortable you feel around someone you perceive as ‘putting on airs’ or ‘putting on a show.’ We tend to see right through them and find them inauthentic. It isn’t much different when interacting with team members and employees. As a leader, it is important to keep in mind that most of the people you work with are intuitive and usually know if something is not working in the organisation. They just want to know whether you have the courage to tell them and be honest with them.
This is not to say that there are no leaders who know it all! There are benefits to being more knowledgeable, more informed and having most of the answers when in a position of leadership, but being a know-it-all can be a double-edged sword. One of the major challenges is it is not engaging or involving for the other person. It is also quite fatiguing for people working with such a leader. Why? It affects their growth and they feel shut down. People don’t show their vulnerability or doubts around a know-it-all-leader. One, there is no permission to do so and second, there is no modelling as they have not seen their leader ever being vulnerable.

In the book Outliers, the author Malcolm Gladwell reflects on the cultural issues involved in pilot communication that makes it harder for subordinates to share information with their superiors. He mentions how co-pilots would routinely not speak up about safety concerns, resulting in disastrous air crashes. One can only speculate as to what could be the reasons that stop them from sharing their apprehensions, but before you keep reading, think about whether you’ve ever been in a similar situation in your own organization where you have withheld critical information reluctantly, only because you were not sure of how it would be received or did not have a safe space to verbalise your concerns.

Leadership can be a very lonely journey and being vulnerable isn’t always considered a positive trait to have; certainly not in the business sense. It is often looked at as a sign of weakness and powerlessness. On the contrary, it actually makes you a better leader because it takes the pressure off you to have every answer and realise it is ok to be wrong. It allows you to start showing your authentic self. This view is backed by evidence based work.

Brené Brown, an expert on social connection, attributes vulnerability as the core of social connection. Contrary to how vulnerability is viewed as a sign of submissiveness, she thinks it is the courage to be yourself. It allows perspectives and thoughts of other people, taking the burden off leaders to be the first with an idea or the first one to answer. Brown explains that we all struggle with things but sharing them is not a sign of weakness, it’s actually a powerful way to build trust. Accepting that you are not perfect and that you can express that, takes the pressure and stress off you. The team too feels respected, honoured for their opinion and rather than feeling like another peg in the larger system, become more loyal.

But why do we find vulnerability inappropriate at the workplace? That is so because being vulnerable means having one’s flaws or mistakes exposed, which leads to fear of criticism of our abilities or character. It could also reveal a lack of control and undermines the leader’s authority. Being vulnerable means exposing yourself to questions like – will I be respected enough if I say I do not know? Will my position be threatened? Am I giving an opportunity to my team members to doubt my ability? What will that mean for me in the long-run? It might be a departure from long-standing ways of leadership where displaying your emotions was frowned upon.

We feel it takes a lot of self-awareness and self-work to be vulnerable. In our leadership development training programs, we talk about various ways in which leaders can get comfortable with expressing their vulnerability.

Firstly, take off your armor and accept vulnerability as your strength. It means replacing ‘professional distance and cool’ with uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. It is also permitting yourself to have the space to be honest, be comfortable with not having all the answers and asking for help. To err is human and the more willing you are to accept your mistakes, and not point fingers or make excuses, more people around will trust you and feel connected with you. Another important strategy is to be more empathetic and look at a situation from others’ perspective. The most effective step a leader can take is to just stop and listen. It also involves consciously taking a step back and allowing people around you to take control of the conversation, so that they feel as co-creators in the shared vision of the organisation. Of course, one cannot overlook the business impact of an invested, creative and driven team – definitely an added advantage.

It is perhaps time to pause and say the 3 magic words, loud and clear and without hesitation – ‘I don’t know!’ and see the charm unfurl.


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