January 31, 2014

What Leaders Do When They Don’t Know What To Do

GROWTHEvery one of us, regardless of rank and expertise, will eventually get pushed out of our competence. Although it never feels good, it is a fact of our working lives and it is the core mechanism of growth and development. What leaders do when they are edged out of their competence marks a pivotal turn in not just their contribution to the organization, but also in the response of their followership.

When leaders “react” to the uncertainty with discomfort and fear, they tend to pursue a course of action that keeps the perception of their knowledge and expertise intact. (After all, they are the leader — they’re supposed to know how to handle this.). There are a number of simple and elaborate defensive routines that leaders employ to avoid chinks in their armor.

A classic example of a defensive routine is the unwillingness to ask a question for fear of being seen as incompetent. By their very nature, defensive routines are self-maintaining and self-reinforcing and they prevent learning and correction. Despite the blind spots they often create—whether they come in the form of avoidance, scapegoating, or other diversions—we maintain them because we believe that they will help us evade challenging, threatening, or otherwise embarrassing problems.

Ironically, while a leader’s ego may believe that their perceived competence is intact, followers can smell a fake from a mile away. Recognizing the tendency to rely on defensive routines, and instead trusting yourself enough to act differently in response to the uncomfortable moments that edge us away from our competence, can actually increase a leader’s credibility.

When a leader responds authentically to challenging circumstances, people are more likely to risk expressing their own honest points of view. The kinds of transparent conversations that follow become the incremental steps toward a culture of high-trust and effective collaboration. As these forces accelerate, people are free to stop clinging to past successes, stop avoiding little mistakes that prevent innovation, and stop investing energy into the defensive routines that cloud the real challenges and opportunities at hand.

The next time you are edged out of your competence, keep the following in mind to embrace the learning edge:

  • Leaders can and should value their own growth and development – but it only works when you accepts your limits.
  • Saying “I don’t know, let’s explore this in greater depth…” is an outstanding response to an unknown, pivotal question.
  • Embracing moments when you’re outside of your depth is a chance to let other people shine through their expertise.
  • The energy and effort required to always be “right,” buries opportunities to be “useful” to others.

Feel free to share your thoughts about the importance of “what leaders do when they don’t know what to do.”

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