How new leaders can thrive without all the answers

21st June by Karen Smart

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Consider this: you have just been promoted to a management position. You are excited, but there is a knot in your stomach. You are supposed to have all the answers, right? But what if you don’t? What if embracing not knowing is a key to managerial success?

Traditional versus modern leadership approaches in a VUCA world

Historically, managers were expected to be all-knowing, all-seeing authorities who were there to dispense instruction, direction and wisdom.

However, today’s world is far more complex, quick-moving and unpredictable. Managers are finding themselves having to operate in VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) or BANI (Brittle, Anxious, Nonlinear, Incomprehensible) settings. These terms describe the chaotic and unpredictable nature of modern markets.

The truth is that the old management approach is simply not fit for purpose anymore. The good news? Admitting you don’t have all the answers can help make you a better leader or manager.

Embracing the uncertainty of not knowing is crucial for thriving in such environments, as it allows leaders to remain flexible, resourceful, open minded and more adaptable to unexpected changes.

The power of not knowing

Now let us bring this to life by imagining a tech start-up where the pace of change is relentless. Carla, a newly promoted manager, feels overwhelmed. She worries that admitting uncertainty will undermine her authority. However, instead of pretending to know it all, she chooses to be candidly open about her learning curve. Her honesty fosters a culture of trust and collaboration within her team.

By accepting the position of not knowing, Carla is able to create the space for her team to contribute ideas and solutions. As a result, her team feels valued and empowered, which can lead to more innovative breakthroughs that might never have surfaced in a more rigid environment. Her story illustrates that not knowing is not a sign of weakness but a strength that can encourage collective problem solving and continuous improvement.

Developing a coaching mindset

So how do you embrace the challenging task of getting comfortable with not knowing? One effective approach is to develop a coaching mindset and use coaching skills. Let’s have a closer look at its attributes:

Active listening: truly listen to your team. When Carla’s software developer Adam expresses his concerns about a new project’s feasibility, Carla listens without interrupting. This builds trust and helps her understand the real issues at play.

Asking powerful questions: instead of jumping in with solutions, ask questions that prompt deeper thinking. Carla asks Adam, “What challenges do you foresee and how might we address them together?” This style of questioning encourages Adam to explore potential obstacles and solutions more thoroughly.

Providing supportive feedback: constructive and developmental feedback helps team members learn and grow. When Adam suggests a novel approach to the project, Carla provides feedback that acknowledges his creativity and offers insights to refine his idea.

Resisting the urge to offer solutions

One of the most challenging aspects of adopting a coaching mindset is resisting the urge to offer immediate advice or solutions. This can feel very alien, as managers often feel compelled to demonstrate their experience by solving problems on the spot. However, this can undermine team members’ confidence, growth and creativity. Instead, by holding back and encouraging team members to explore their own solutions, managers can foster a more engaged and innovative team environment.

The power of reflection

Reflection is another critical element of being able to embrace not knowing. It involves stepping back to consider different perspectives, question assumptions and to explore new possibilities. Through reflection, managers can better understand their own thought processes and biases, leading to more informed decision-making.

Now consider Ochuko, a newly promoted manager at a marketing firm. She schedules regular one-to-one meetings with her team members, creating a safe environment for open dialogue. When her team member, Jason, struggles with a campaign, Ochuko does not provide immediate solutions. Instead, she asks, “What strategies have you considered and what outcomes do you anticipate from each?” The questions encourage Jason to think critically and explore various strategies himself. It also demonstrates that Ochuko values Jason’s input, boosting his confidence and engagement.

Benefits of a coaching mindset

Adopting a coaching mindset offers a multitude of benefits:

Enhanced communication: managers who listen actively and ask thoughtful questions create a more open and communicative workspace. Both Carla and Ochuko’s teams feel heard and appreciated, leading to better collaboration.

Increased self-awareness: reflecting on their management style helps managers grow. By seeking feedback from their teams, managers can become more aware of their strengths and areas for improvement.

Greater adaptability: managers who are open to new ideas and perspectives are better equipped to handle change. Both Carla and Ochuko’s willingness to explore different strategies makes their teams more adaptable and resilient.

In summary, being comfortable with not knowing is not just a strategy; it is a mindset shift. It requires vulnerability, curiosity, and commitment to continuous learning. For newly promoted managers or future leaders, this approach can be transformative.

We need to create more workplaces where leaders like Ochuko and Carla can foster a culture of trust, innovation and resilience. By developing a coaching mindset, they are not only enhancing their own leadership capabilities but also empowering their teams to thrive in an ever-changing world.

So, the next time you are faced with uncertainty, remember that it is OK not to have all the answers. Accept not knowing. Ask questions, listen deeply and create a team spirit where everyone’s ideas can shine. In doing so, you will discover that the true power of leadership lies not in knowing everything, but in fostering a collective journey of trust, discovery and growth.