Why leaders of today don’t need to know all the answers

By Lisa Hughes, Management Facilitator and Executive Coach

When we think of leadership, we often imagine a charismatic commanding leader who has all the answers. This is the traditional view of leadership, the C suite executive who is confident and charming and leads from the front. This leadership model held up well in the industrial age when markets were predictable, stable and steady. We all recognise that the ground beneath has shifted considerably and we are now operating in what the military call a VUCA environment (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous). In this unpredictable and rapidly evolving world leadership has changed and shifted.  Leaders now need to be agile and flexible, responsive to ever increasing customer demands and an employee landscape that is seeking less of a ‘job for life’, and more meaning, purpose and engagement than ever before.

Source: Shutterstock

In this environment a leader’s ability to bring all the best minds to the table and ask the right questions rather than provide all of the answers is proving to be more meaningful. Creating culture and environment where employees can thrive and engage is required to create and sustain success.  Leaders need to set direction, provide clarity and focus and more than anything else create ‘psychological safety’.  Psychological safety came out as the single most important of the 5 major factors identified by Google in Project Aristotle as the characteristics of high performing teams. The other factors are;

  1. Dependability
  2. Structure & clarity
  3. Meaning and
  4. Impact.

These 4 factors are necessary but not sufficient for high performance, as without the key factor of psychological safety the other 4 don’t work.

So what is psychological safety? The term psychological safety was coined by Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School and author of ‘Teaming’. Psychological safety is defined as the shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.  In other words the belief that team members have your back, that you can propose new ideas and challenge thinking without being shamed, blamed or ridiculed. It is this culture that creates the agility, creativity and innovation so key to responding rapidly to our changing VUCA environment.

Source: iStock

How do we as leaders create psychological safety?

According to Edmondson there are three key factors –

  1. Frame the work as a learning experience, there is no right or wrong there is only what works well or what might work better. The need for perfection and to have the right answer as a leader stymies our creativity and openness to new ways of doing things.
  2. Admit your own mistakes as a leader – be vulnerable and show up saying that you are not perfect and make mistakes, be willing to apologise and learn from things that don’t work well. This gives others permission to do the same but to identify learnings and to make suggestions as to what might work better or prevent errors in the future.
  3. Bring curiosity to every situation – interested questioning not interrogation enables us to get to the heart of issues and creates clarity and collaboration. This brings the best thinking to the table.  Using the phrase ‘Tell me more about that’ rather than shutting down and moving on can open up new ways of looking at things.

This is a far cry from leader as hero.  Leader as glory seeker or credit taker.  It is more akin to leader as facilitator – the neutral servant of the group.  The one who frames the question and leads the process of understanding and create elegant solutions to complex problems.

Source: iStock

What are the concrete steps we can take with our teams and organisations?

The skill of the facilitator is to frame and ask clear, insightful, powerful questions rather than provide solutions. A key part of bringing this alive is looking at how we run meetings, both one to ones and /or team meetings. When we give feedback, do we jump to conclusions or do we bring curiosity to situations?  Is there a ‘right’ way to do things and if we do things wrong do we blame and shame our team and ourselves. Can we set our meetings up to create dialogue and respectful challenge?

It may feel counter-intuitive to how we think about leadership, but as the market continues to shift and change at rapid pace, our ability to lead may just depend on our curiosity above all.

Want to learn more? Check out the range of professional management training courses at Irish Times Training.

About Lisa Hughes

Lisa Hughes is an experienced management facilitator and executive coach. Having spent 15 years working at a senior level in the Digital and telecoms sectors, Lisa uses her industry experience to focus on developing Leadership, Performance Management, Resilience and Change Management capabilities, enabling better decision making, faster response, more efficient team collaboration.

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