Leaders don’t, and can’t, know everything—but the pressure to act like you do can be great—especially in this day and age of direct social connection. The way you show up in those moments where you just don’t have the answers can impact the degree of influence you have within your team, organization, community and society. The expectations and responsibilities for a leader of people are different than they are for a leader of an organization. I’ve experienced both throughout my career and I have a few tips to share on leading well through topics you don’t know much about.
If there is an issue impacting your people, you must step into that space. You must humbly approach your one-on-one conversations with a desire to learn. If a teammate has expressed something indicative of a deeper issue, open the conversation by referencing that comment, ready to listen and learn—without telling your story or sharing your opinions or defending your perspective. As Dr. Stephen R. Covey encourages, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
You are a leader; you have a broader responsibility than addressing your own emotions. Your teammates need empathy, even if you don’t get it—and even if you have had different experiences. When you have a contrasting perspective, acknowledge your teammate’s point of view, appreciate the difference, their openness and authenticity, but then align to go forward together. By building a sense of inclusion within your team, you will provide emotional support for your teammates. In turn, a pathway is created for the individuals on your team to talk to you, their leader. Honor that trust by listening and seeking to understand.
If you are the CEO, talk to your strategy team. Lead them in authentic, honest conversation where all perspectives are welcome. And be honest, let them know if you don’t know, but that you want to understand, you want to learn. This sort of transparency can be scary for leaders, but actually creates an atmosphere that allows vulnerability—which fosters empathy. Take time to listen to your leaders and learn what they believe. Discuss the issue from all necessary angles—business, societal, cultural. Then after talking with your strategy team, go to your Board. Run the same play with them—be honest, listen and learn.
As a leader of an organization, you can jeopardize your credibility if you don’t really understand an issue. There can be major unintended consequences of reacting without listening. And if you are the founder, there is an even greater risk—you don’t necessarily have accountability to others, so it’s a lot easier to discuss your own personal opinion. Make sure you are seeking diverse perspectives from people in all areas of the business. This honesty and education can provide alignment within the company going forward.
From my own experience, I remember unintentionally eliciting a strong emotional reaction from the people I led when I didn’t take the time to understand. Often, when I led a town hall meeting, staff would share their frustrations surrounding an operational issue. I would hear their dissatisfaction and spring into action to fix it. This would destroy their direct manager’s credibility. I would later learn that the manager was working very hard behind the scenes to come up with the best recommendation before bringing it to my attention. My quick response to the emotion of the staff would hurt my relationship with their manager.
To avoid reacting emotionally without all the information, pause and take a moment to listen. Ask questions for clarity and test your understanding by saying, “I want to be sure I understand, what you are saying is…” Whether it be an operational issue within the business or a cultural issue impacting the people you lead, choose to have the mindset of a learner—it makes all the difference.