You will never have all the answers; Sometimes you must act alone
Growing up, my younger sister despised me because I was a know-it-all who frequently and unabashedly told her what to do and how to do it. And no, despised is not too strong of a word. In hindsight, I deserved the criticism and I am grateful that she has at least mostly forgiven me. Apparently, nobody likes a know-it-all. Perhaps more importantly, it is difficult to respect and almost impossible to follow a know-it-all.
In my life and career thus far, I have learned that leading is very rarely about knowing everything or even knowing most things. The best leaders that I have met have been people who have a well laid out plan for finding answers but who rely on the smart and able people around them to guide actions and decisions. Leaders are the people who truly listen to the ideas, solutions, and opinions of others, while laying the groundwork for future action and calling the team back to mission, vision, goals, or the bottom-line as necessary. Leaders ask deep and important questions, and help others discover answers within themselves and within each other. I believe that leadership is only possible when we admit that we do not have all the answers, that we cannot and will never have all the answers. In an interview once, I was asked by a team that I would be supervising what my plans for the first six months would be. I hesitated for a moment but went with my gut: “I can’t possibly know what the first six months will look like without first hearing from my team, the larger organization, and the community about what they would want those months to look like. I don’t know enough about all of you, your skills, and needs to make empty promises or estimations. But I can tell you there will be a lot of patient listening, collaborative brainstorming, and on-the-ground learning. What do you hope for the first six months?” One of the interviewers put down his pen and stared me down. “We need you here,” he said. I got the job.
Naturally, there are times when we have more information or expertise than others and it is in the best interest of the team to share what we know and the answers we have. So too, there are moments when being a leader requires swift and decisive action. When there is a crisis or an emergency, leaders can make their followers feel safer and more secure by providing clear, unambiguous guidance. The important thing is to be upfront, honest, and authentic in these moments and in the preceding and following moments. Certainly, what leaders do before and after a big decision or crisis is just as important as their real-time actions. In the preceding moments, we must give direction on what to expect and follow through on what we say is going to happen. I once was in an organization that included staff as a part of the strategic planning process over six months. Ultimately, not even one of our ideas was included and we felt slighted, unheard, and like our time had been wasted. If this is a decision you are going to make on your own, don’t tell people they will have a say. In another job, an incident shut down our programs for a day and we were told not to come to work because “something happened.” We were afraid for ourselves, our jobs, our coworkers, and the people we served. If there is a crisis that requires some level of confidentiality or discretion, proactively make clear what can be shared and what can’t be shared to minimize feelings of uncertainty, fear, and exclusion.
After you act alone or in isolation, it is essential to be clear about why decisions were made and to back-up actions with evidence that hopefully stems from knowledge you have solicited from the team in the past. This is critical. True leaders get to know their people over time, including their tendencies, preferences, passions, and vulnerabilities. Thus, in moments of struggle, they can make informed decisions that are in the best interest of the team by calling on this knowledge and then explicitly naming it as substantiation for whatever was done or decided. The message should never be, “I don’t need your help” or “I’m smarter than you and I know best” or “I have the power, shut up and listen” or “Because I said so, that’s why.” Instead, true leaders help people to understand that decisions and actions that affect them aren’t made in a bubble and are executed with genuine care for both outcome AND people.
I have discovered that for every good way of doing something, there is almost always at least one other way of doing it that is equally good. By pretending that we are perfect or that we have all the answers, we limit our ability to expand our frame of reference and to discover new, perhaps more innovative or holistic truths. When we value our way above the ways of others, we also risk missing out on the real expertise and brilliance of the people around us. One final story from my life illustrates this point beautifully.
A few years ago, my team participated in a Myers-Briggs training and had to complete a series of tasks and exercises to demonstrate our personality types and leadership styles. I, as an off-the-charts ‘J’, was matched with an off-the-charts ‘P’ for an activity that required us to publicly sort through two giant stacks of files to find five specific pieces of paper. For reference, people with the Judging (J) trait seek clarity and closure, and like plans and check-lists. We like law and order, rules, and organization. In contrast, Perceiving (P) people are much more flexible and relaxed, willing to go with the flow and take things as they come. So, my coworker and I faced off. Within two minutes, his space was a complete disaster. There were papers on the floor and scattered about his desk, some folders were open, and others were closed. When I looked up, I almost had an anxiety attack. How could he possibly find anything in all that mess? My desk was perfectly organized, and I had devised a clear method of searching the folders and putting the searched ones neatly to the side. When time expired, we each had found four of the required documents, proving that vastly different strategies can yield similar if not identical results. While still deeply uncomfortable with the mess of his desk and his overall nonchalance, I have come to recognize his approach as a valid way of operating and working in the world. I have also discovered, with practice and patience, that we are good partners because we push each other outside of our comfort zones and force each other to see problems from different perspectives.
Leadership requires us to name and accept that we do not and cannot know everything, to admit when our truth is limited or incomplete, to recognize that the strategies and ideas of others may not look the same but may have equal or greater merit. Furthermore, it requires us to be simultaneously bold and vulnerable, active listeners and listening actors. For true power comes from knowing we are each but a mere piece of any solution. True leaders provide the table on which the puzzle sits; the team constructs the cohesive picture.
CULTURAL NOTE: Who we are and how we lead is informed by our backgrounds, experiences, understandings of the universe, and cultural truths. As a white woman working and leading in a space predominantly made up of and serving people of color, it has become important for me to explicitly name that there are some, if not many, truths, experiences, feelings, and understandings that I cannot and will never truly be able to comprehend. I commit to listening deeply, speaking up when I can, shutting up when I must, stepping up when I’m needed, stepping back when I’m not needed, and acting with cultural acceptance and acknowledgment in all spaces of my life. I know that I do not and will never have all the answers, but I will always lead with respect, integrity, a willingness to ask the hard questions, and the humility to hear hard answers. I humbly request that you tell me when I “don’t get it” or when my privilege may be clouding my ability to see the full picture or to see the full “you.” In order to be the leader I was put on this earth to be, I seek to be held accountable for what I don’t and can’t know. Thank you for your guidance, patience, and willingness to walk with me toward a more just, compassionate, and radically transformed world.