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Why leaders must learn to move forwards without all the answers

Kiddy & Partners

Our research into the future of leadership has shown us that traditional command and control approaches will no longer be effective. Instead, leaders will need to carefully balance being experts with seeking expertise, learning new behaviours and unlearning others, and developing a hyper-awareness of functional, industry and internal knowledge in order to make good decisions. They will also need to get more comfortable moving forward without all the answers.

Being an expert versus an enabler

It’s all well and good offering your own expertise, but it’s another thing entirely to be able to let go and to enable others to contribute instead. 

Using their Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership Kouzes and Posner posit that good leaders foster positive and inclusive spaces which enable others to act, giving them autonomy and ownership so that they invest fully in their tasks. (1) This is about providing the right support structures, creating a vision and then letting others carry out that vision in a safe and nurturing environment - one of psychological safety. Studies have shown that when teams are able to operate in a manner whereby their mistakes will not be punished, they perform to a higher standard. (2) This is because they’re working from a place of trust, curiosity and confidence so they feel more emboldened to take risks and be adaptable.  

It’s not what you need to learn, but what you need to unlearn

We’ve all been conditioned to think and act in certain ways in certain contexts; some of these thoughts and actions are morally sound and helpful, but some of them are wrong or misinformed and can have negative consequences. For example, outdated leadership might look to create a culture whereby people are accepted, but only if they conform to a homogenous set of thinking or behaviour – the idea of a melting pot. In a workplace context, these can lead to un-inclusive practices, poor decision making and reputational damage. Truly inclusive leaders look to having a culture that is a mosaic, bringing together diversity of thought in order to shape a common vision. (3)

Effective leaders need to spend their lives unlearning and relearning, this is good practice for a number of reasons including crisis management. According to research, this can be done in at least three ways: by listening to dissents; turning events into opportunities and through experimentation. (4) This same research also echoes the ‘fail fast’ philosophy which is about being open to trying new ideas fast and testing small and quickly, in order to accelerate progress

Moving forward without all the answers

We’ve had plenty of conversations with leaders who’ve said that since the beginning of the pandemic they’ve had to learn to get comfortable with moving forward without having all the answers because the impacts COVID has had on business means that there is less time to spend deliberating whether action should be taken or not. Many have increased their communication in response to this, going from monthly or quarterly executive meetings to quick weekly or sometimes daily check-ins to discuss the latest changes and how they can respond – a lot of the time having to press forward even if some pieces of the puzzle are missing. 

In this context, leaders cannot be afraid of, or penalised for, failure, but must practice safe failure in small and manageable ways, forever iterating and quickly overcoming. ‘Failure is an essential ingredient for radical innovation’ , helping people and organisations develop at an accelerated pace. Organisations shouldn’t wait to be disrupted by external or internal forces in order to create solutions – their leaders should already be ahead of the curve, experimenting and pursuing ideas as frequently as they can – and encouraging others to do the same. 

The expertise/awareness challenge

In a previous article, we talked about the four key areas of awareness that leaders need to be successful in their role. In contexts of rapid change, awareness of others, the organisation and the wider context are pivotal for leaders to be able to make good decisions or, more importantly, to be able to identify who the better person is to be making that decision instead. Leaders need to be much more aware of the people around them; the strengths of their teams and how to leverage these.

Things are changing so quickly that knowledge and expertise are constantly going out of date. Instead of maintaining expertise, leaders should maintain awareness. Awareness of trends – social, environmental, political – a sense of what an organisation might face in a day, a week, a month. This is a lot of pressure because it’s about being truly forward-thinking and making critical decisions with limited information and being comfortable with ambiguity. 

But it doesn’t need to be lonely at the top. We see the likes of Jacinda Ardern and Joe Biden relying on others to advise and guide them. As discussed, good leaders enable others to lead and knowing that they do not hold all the answers allows others to provide diversity of thought. Recent interviews we’ve conducted with a variety of leaders from different sectors has shown us that leaders themselves do not need to be well-rounded, but that their teams certainly do. If you have a strong team behind you, you have a strong future in front of you.

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References

  1. Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (1995). The leadership challenge: how to keep getting extraordinary things done in organizations. California: Jossey-Bass.
  2. Delizonna, L. (2017, August 24). High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety. Here’s How to Create It. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from: https://hbr.org/2017/08/high-performing-teams-need-psychological-safety-heres-how-to-create-it
  3.  Llopis, G. (2017, January 16). 5 Reasons Diversity And Inclusion Fails. Forbes. Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/glennllopis/2017/01/16/5-reasons-diversity-and-inclusion-fails/?sh=728fa73b50df
  4. Nystrom, Paul and Starbuck, William H., To Avoid Organizational Crises, Unlearn (December 25, 2015). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2708289 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2708289
  5. Giles, S. (2018, April 30). How To Fail Faster -- And Why You Should. Forbes. Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/sunniegiles/2018/04/30/how-to-fail-faster-and-why-you-should/?sh=2513e6e9c177    
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