Real leaders don’t have all the answers

Neil Parton
Neil Parton

By Neil Parton, MD, Elumatec

Crisis – what crisis? The only way you’ll have missed doom and gloom laden headlines over the last few months is by burying your head in the sand.

Indeed, some people are using that tactic, claiming current news stories are too worrying. If it’s not a war in Europe, it’s the cost of living crisis and the ever warming planet.

Wanting to avoid the news is understandable but it’s not helpful. When there is a crisis we need to be informed so that we can navigate it as effectively as possible. Avoidance isn’t a long-term strategy either.

You’ve probably noticed that crises, large and small, tend to follow on from each other. A virus, staff shortages, supply chain issues, rising prices – you get the picture. This is our world, warts and all, and we have to live in it.

What is strong leadership?

So, if we can’t avoid problems, how do we minimise their impact? The short answer is leadership.

But like most short answers, it’s only a partial one. We might crave a strong, resolute leader when we face a crisis, but is that what we need?

There is a place for conviction but, naming no names, we all know of leaders whose stubborn adherence to their strong line proved to be their downfall.

It’s a bit of a conundrum, but it appears that the best leaders, the strongest ones, are those willing to admit their weaknesses. Let me explain that a little more.

Can we trust certainty?

Whether we’re talking about heading a team, managing a business, or running the country, leaders are going to face uncertainty.

Without a crystal ball – I’m assuming you don’t have one – the future is unpredictable. Did we, for example, know, at the outset, that the pandemic would have such a positive impact on consumer demand?

Despite uncertainty, some people think that to be an effective leader they must have all the answers.

Unlike you or I – or anyone else – they claim to know what’s going to happen. Naturally, we’re suspicious. How can they know everything? The outcome is that we’re not sure we can trust them.

We’re happier when people are upfront, clear about what they do know and about what they don’t.

It not only makes them human – it makes them better able to respond to life’s inevitable curveballs.

And we can too. We’re not fixed in our thinking. We’re ready to adapt and respond when a situation unfolds in an unexpected way.

Just do it

The second problem leaders may face is one of paralysis. They don’t know what to do so they do nothing. In some scenarios ‘wait and see’ can be a fair strategy, but not always.

Imagine you’re managing a football team and always play with a 4-4-2 formation. You suspect that, with your squad, 3-5-2 might work better but you don’t know, so you play safe, and miss the chance to get the insights a change would deliver.

There is something very unsettling about having that ‘what if?’ question hanging over us. It’s often better to test the waters, to do something and be ready to change again if it’s not quite right.

Leading from the back?

Leaders must also be prepared to ask for help. They can’t do it all. No one can. Asking for help gives others the opportunity to contribute. It empowers them, gives them purpose and promotes conditions for innovative thinking.

Leaders must be prepared to take a step back. Entrusted individuals may not follow the exact same route the leader envisaged, but providing the direction is the same, the overall result will align with objectives. The organisation will also be stronger for the extra experience its people have gained.

Let our values lead us

There’s one last point I want to make. While not downplaying the challenges we face there is one thing we can all do – whether we are in a leadership role or not. That is to understand our values and our purpose and to hold tight to them.

If we have built a business that has quality as a principle, we need to keep on demonstrating our commitment to it. If our thing is technology we need to keep developing. If it’s responsive customer service, we need to keep supporting those who need us. If we go into a tailspin at the first sign of challenging times, we’re done for. If we keep our heads, we’ll be just fine.