Many of us as leaders, especially new leaders, feel we must have all the answers. Some even feel a sense of shame when asked a question, by a client or an employee, and they don’t have the answer.
And, despite these feelings of inadequacy most of us have felt at one time or another, I also hear stories of the magic of saying “I don’t know”.
One of my favorite stories came from one of my clients who grew up in his family business.
I met this man ten years ago and before I knew him, he had worked every job in the company and truly had all the answers. In fact, he was the answer man. Everyone came to him when they needed help figuring out what to do next. This worked fine when he was on the line and even when he was the operations manager.
By the time I met him, he was president of the company and being the answer man wasn’t working so well. He was so focused on solving everyone’s problems and making sure everything was done right in the factory, that he was not doing the job of President. He wasn’t focused on strategy, nor was he meeting with customers, nor was he innovating or coaching (answering folks questions ≠ coaching).
One day after we had talked about his frustration in one of our coaching sessions, he had an idea. He decided starting today, when folks came to his office, he would begin saying “I don’t know”. At first his team became annoyed with him. Over time, they stopped asking.
Today his company is filled with competent executives that run their operations effectively. So effectively that the company has doubled in size and he works fewer hours than he did when the company was half its size.
For some of us, we actually don’t know, others, like this man, do.
In either case, what are we giving up by wanting to, trying to, have all the answers rather than allowing others discover the answers themselves?