Leaders: It’s OK to not know everything

Recently, a CEO confided that the accelerated disruptions occurring in her industry, with the advent of new technologies, new entrants and new business models, were shaking her usual confidence. While an expert in her field, she was doubting her adaptability to the increasingly complex nature of the challenges leaders face today, from work to home life.

She is far from alone. More and more, leaders tell us they feel out of their usual comfort zone and on unstable grounds. They complain they’re “efforting” too much, working harder for weaker results in a 24/7 environment of crammed agendas and information overload.

What’s the solution? We think it’s about building your inner agility.

Disruptive times call for transformational leaders to let go and become more complex themselves to navigate effectively. Little attention has been paid to the cognitive and emotional load that dynamic change creates for leaders. It’s an especially onerous burden, because the very nature of disruption means that leaders must steer their organizations into – and through – a fog of uncertainty.

It’s increasingly clear that to “do” agile, you must “be” agile. How do you do that? By growing more complex ourselves. To do that requires building a bigger inner self so complexity feels simpler and allows us to move with greater purpose, clarity, inner calm and impact. Instead of getting frustrated with all the challenges or with ourselves and our habits, it pays to make the habit your friend.

In our experience, these five personal practices can contribute meaningfully to the mindset required to lead effectively in transformative times. They serve as building blocks of personal inner agility:

  1. Pause to move faster. Pausing while remaining engaged in action is a counterintuitive step that leaders can use to create space for clear judgment; original thinking; and speedy, purposeful action.
  2. Embrace your ignorance. Good, fresh ideas can come from anywhere; competitors can emerge from neighboring industries; and a single technology product can reshape your business. In such a world, listening—and thinking—from a place of not knowing is a critical means of encouraging the discovery of original, unexpected, breakthrough ideas.
  3. Radically reframe the questions. One way to discern the complex patterns that give rise to both problems and windows of emergent possibilities is to change the nature of the questions we ask ourselves. Asking yourself challenging questions may help unblock your existing mental model.
  4. Set direction, not destination. In our complex systems and in this complex era, solutions are rarely straightforward. Instead of telling your team to move from point A to point B, join them in a journey toward an image of the future that sparks inspiration. Lead yourself and your team with purposeful vision, not just achievements. Instead of asking “What will we achieve?” ask “How will we know that we are being successful… beyond targets and metrics?”
  5. Test your solutions – and yourself. Quick, cheap failures can avert major, costly disasters. This fundamental Silicon Valley tenet is as true for you as it is for your company. Thinking of yourself as a living laboratory helps make the task of leading an agile, ever-shifting company exciting instead of terrifying.

These practices offer a set of interrelated touchstones, not panaceas. And they aren’t trivial to tackle. But conscious, disciplined practice boosts the chances of rising above the harried din of day-to-day specifics, leading your team effectively, and surveying your company and its competitive landscape with creative foresight.

As for the CEO who doubted her abilities to confront increasingly complex challenges with her usual aplomb, we helped her shift her approach and learn to be OK with not knowing all the answers.

Learn more about our People & Organizational Performance Practice