7 Ways to Lead When You Don’t Have the Answer: Learning vs. Knowing

This past week I interviewed a candidate for a client hiring a key position. I was struck by something the candidate said in response to my question “what compels you to want to join this company?”

His answer?

“Frankly I am impressed at the level of learning I sense from the CEO—he seems to want the people here and the company to be constantly evolving, and consequently, seems open to learning from others what he/they don’t know. That’s inviting!”

This statement struck me as a profound observation. In our work, we are often faced with big, hairy issues clients have internally or externally—they often are coming to us because they are unable to materially progress without support in the form of consultants. When I really think about it, our best clients are keenly aware that they don’t know what they don’t know, and that their success has a great deal to do with their ability to learn, and for their company to evolve.

This doesn’t mean that what they already know (expert product info, trade secrets, skill and experience of senior teams, financial acumen) is irrelevant— in fact, it is essential. But a belief that learning itself matters, and that change starts with individual leader transformation, is a game changer for the very best companies out there.

So, what does it take to be learning focused, rather than knowing focused? Here’s what my best clients have taught me:

1. Humility

Clients who possess this quality do not need to be the one who knows all the answers. These leaders, and the cultures they create, demonstrate regularly that there is room for the ideas of others, and that despite their expertise and experience, they do not know it all.

2. Curiosity

Wondering Why and How, an infinite desire to inquire, a quest to understand, and the urge to discover more, are elements which live largely in the best and brightest leaders. When challenges appear, these leaders are not content to check the box and sit back safely and surely – they are driven to learn and to continually seek further.

3. Vulnerability

The knowledge that uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure are critical components of organizational leadership defines “vulnerability” in a learning organization. To not know is truly terrifying at times, and can feel both destabilizing and intimidating. Nonetheless, it is often in the realm of uncertainty that leaders discover astounding answers and innovations, which allow them to make great things happen.

4. Tolerance for Ambiguity

We sometimes say that the one’s level in the organizational hierarchy correlates with ambiguity. At or near the top, problems are more complex, and answers more ephemeral. Holding steady and moving forward even when clear answers are not available is the mark of a leader willing to learn and transform. If the problems are simple, then the answers are simple, and having answers readily available becomes straightforward. Learning through ambiguity requires openness to the discovery of solutions not previously known; which is where the magic often lies.

5. Courage

Great leaders I know possess the kind of courage that most often accompanies terrific fear or uncertainty. Despite the fear, they find a way to proceed within the discomfort associated with the intimidating problem they face. True learning requires such a dramatic leap off the edge of the known, that courage is an essential ingredient.

6. Getting Help Orientation

When we do not know, we must work to find others who do, or at least others who are willing to help in the discovery mindset. This goes back to my original anecdote: a candidate who noticed first and foremost the willingness and eagerness of the CEO to seek out help from others to supplement his existing skills and knowledge.

7. Optimism

When we cannot clearly see the answers we seek, and when the going gets really tough, the ability to believe in a positive outcome is essential. Being open to a positive outcome when it is least expected can make or break a leader’s ability to persevere.

Net-Net: I am honored to support and work with phenomenal leaders who, in their own ways, actively pursue learning in their daily practice. Their quest to drive change, achieve results, make a difference, and make a profit, presents them with regular opportunities to both use what they know, and constantly seek new solutions. Often, the questions themselves matter more than the answers, as organizations and the leaders who create them learn and evolve.

Jim Morris