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How To Get Comfortable With Not Knowing: 15 Leadership Tips

Originally published by

Loren Margolis, Founder & Managing Director, Training & Leadership Success


Company leaders often feel pressure to know the answer to every question that crosses their desks. When they don’t, fear being seen as unfit or unworthy of their title may lead them to respond in ways that diminish credibility instead of building trust.

It can be challenging for coaches to advise clients who are stuck in this mindset. But learning to react appropriately even when the answers to difficult questions are unclear is the mark of a truly effective and respected leader.

Below, 15 members of Forbes Coaches Council offer the advice they give leaders to help them become more comfortable not having the answer to every question.

Featured members offer advice to leaders who feel they need to have all the answers.

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1. Embrace Not Knowing
Leaders who are ready to embrace not knowing will increase their influence. With data flowing through your business like a raging river, the days of a leader being the smartest person in the room are over. By demonstrating curiosity and humility, a leader can challenge team members to find the answers, bring their best thinking to the group and increase collaboration to solve problems. – Christine Grimm, Aria Consulting International

2. Look To Leadership Role Models
I supportively play the role of devil’s advocate by asking the leader to think of a role model who effectively led their organization through ambiguous times based solely on their own knowledge. This tactic objectively places the same unrealistic expectation on someone they admire. It sometimes gets a laugh, but it also helps them logically realize that it’s impossible to have all the answers. – Loren Margolis, Training & Leadership Success LLC

3. Set A Desired Outcome And Listen For The Answers
Being a great leader does not equal having all the right answers. In fact, trying to do that can be a team-killer. You need to set the desired outcome, and then listen carefully for the answers. Be open, and know that you will find the best answer. – Linda Martin, Linda Martin Results

4. Ask The Right People The Right Questions
I encourage my clients to get comfortable with “not knowing” by whatever means or tools they will use. Successful, open-minded decision makers are well-versed in exercising judgment in a state of not knowing. Start with asking the right questions, and then ask trusted allies what they think. This lends itself to even greater innovation and more exciting outcomes than any one person can achieve. – Bree Luther, Inspired Science Coaching

5. Admit The Unknown And Make It Safe For Others To Do So
If you’re a leader struggling with not having all the answers, admit the unknown and create a safe space for others to do the same. A great way for leaders to demonstrate security in their lack of knowledge is to become perpetual learners. Fostering an environment that rewards continuing education and training would make it acceptable to not have all the answers and, conversely, would promote learning. – Lori A. Manns, Quality Media Consultant Group LLC

6. Empower People With A Purpose And A Path
As a leader, you don’t need to provide all the answers; rather, empower people with a purpose. Talk about who is impacted by the problem and why it is an important problem to solve. Ask the team to solve for what should be done. Open up a collaborative document or tool, ask them to put their ideas on the board, organize them into themes and prioritize the most impactful ones. Provide the path. – Alan Trivedi, ADAPTOVATE

7. Understand Your Impact As A Role Model
Understand your impact as a role model and get curious. If you want to be the expert and provide all the answers, your team members will follow your example. However, this approach stifles innovation and creativity. Leaders need to be willing to ask questions and challenge the status quo. That can’t occur if you are the smartest person in the room. – Kirsten Meneghello, Illumination Coaching LLC

8. Work From A Place Of Positive Intent
I would flip the inherent attitude toward not knowing or not having the answer from the current negative one to a positive one simply by asking, “When would it be best for you to not have all the answers?” or “What would be the benefits for you and the team of you not having the answers?” Working from a place of positive intent and analogies enables a growth mindset and dismantles the doubt in place. – Arthi Rabikrisson, Prerna Advisory

9. Rely On Your Team To Provide Answers
Don’t worry about having all the answers; you’re not supposed to. Your job is to hire staff that has expertise in areas you do not. Pride yourself on having the smartest and most innovative talent working for you; rely on them to give answers to problems they are well-versed in solving. There is a saying that the smartest person in the room knows who to go to for the answers they need. – Amera McCoy, McCoy Consulting LLC

10. Ask Yourself Why You Need All The Answers
First, I would ask why they feel the need to have all the answers. This may reveal some underlying issues around impostor syndrome that may need to be addressed. Also, I would remind them to trust that they assembled a smart, talented team of people, and to respect and value the strengths and knowledge they bring that the leader may not. Leadership is about being vulnerable and acknowledging that you don’t know everything. – Carol Parker Walsh, Carol Parker Walsh Consulting, LLC

11. Learn To Focus On Progress Over Perfection
When coaching clients, it is imperative to focus on progress over perfection. Encourage them to continue to do things each day that focus on their own progress. Too often we take ourselves too seriously and get lost striving for perfection. Don’t focus on being perfect; focus instead on your progress. Then, comfortability can be built around not knowing everything and progressively figuring it out. – Jon Dwoskin, The Jon Dwoskin Experience

12. Operate With A Growth Mindset
It’s a normal human tendency and response for successful leaders to believe that they should have all the answers. In fact, when you’re operating as a leader with a growth mindset, the answers can be revealed. Wanting to personally provide an answer is a manager’s typical reaction. But knowing that the answer resides in the team and can be found through discussion and collaboration is the mark of a successful leader. – Sheila Carmichael, Transitions D2D, LLC

13. Think About Other Leaders In This Situation
I would ask them to remember a time when a leader they respect handled a similar situation. What exactly did the leader do, and what about that approach did your client appreciate? Most likely, the leader admitted they didn’t have the answer, but committed to finding out and reporting back. Your client probably admired their honesty and follow-through, which are two great approaches for them to adopt as well. – Cheryl Czach, Cheryl Czach Coaching and Consulting, LLC

14. Know Your Team Solves Problems Better Than You Alone
Why do you work together as a team when you already know all of the solutions and answers yourself? A team where everyone brings their strengths, skills, experience and knowledge to the table solves most problems and tasks better and faster than one person alone. Your task as a leader is to assemble and lead this diverse team to fully unleash its potential and achieve your common goal. – Michael Thiemann, Strategy-Lab

15. Seek Input From Others
The best leaders always seek input from others when it comes to answers. There will certainly be urgent situations where the leader may have to move ahead without input, but great leaders engage their peers to seek counsel and see all aspects of the issues they need to address. This engagement brings multiple perspectives into play and also raises the level of connection among team members. – Dan Ryan, Ryan Partners