Why not knowing the answer is a sign of leadership

People often think that being a leader means needing to know more than others and having all the answers.

When you cast your mind back through history, great leaders were distinguished by the fact that they usually made wise decisions.   This doesn’t mean all their decisions were wise, but on balance their decisions had good outcomes.

However, there’s a difference between making a wise decision and believing that you need to have all the answers.

Boy and paintingIn today’s frantic paced world, there’s often an expectation that leaders need to have answers at their fingertips, and that’s it’s not OK to say “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand”.

The problem, however, is that we live in an increasingly complex and ambiguous world.  There are lots of unknowns.  It’s simply not possible to have all the answers, all the time.

Creating a culture where it’s not OK to say “I don’t know” or to ask questions is dangerous.

When people don’t feel safe to speak up and out, issues go underground and facts get distorted.  The voice of the silent minority gets squashed.  Ideas or opinions that need to be heard, remain unheard.

So instead of encouraging leaders to find the answers, encourage them to ask the right question.

It was the French anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss, who said: The wise man doesn’t give the right answers, he poses the right questions.

By asking questions a leader shows they are:

  • Interested in the ideas being shared
  • Open to new information and thoughts
  • Welcoming divergent views
  • Encouraging debate and discussion

Being open to asking the right question is a hallmark of influential leadership.   So, what question will you ask next?

Remember, change happens. Make it work for you!


Michelle Gibbings is the author of Step up: How to build your influence at work.  She is known for making the complex, simple.  She helps people to think more deliberately, act with greater purpose and accelerate progress by understanding the art and science of human behaviour.  

 e: michelle@changemeridian.com.au



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