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Don’t Panic,You’re Not Supposed to Have all the Answers.

February 12, 2010

I was talking to a friend recently who is second in command at a publicly traded billion-dollar company. He was telling me about an important project he was responsible for, and how at one point he became completely overwhelmed. It had gotten complicated, he said, and he wasn’t sure what to do next.

“I went into my office, shut the door, and stared at the information in front of me.” He told me. “I didn’t know what to do, so I just let the wave of panic and anxiety wash over me.”

Panic? Anxiety? This does not sound like someone who should be in charge.

Well, actually, it does. Being in a leadership position does not necessarily mean that we will have all the answers, nor does it mean that we have suddenly acquired magical all-knowing super-powers.

My friend went on to tell me how he eventually resolved the problem by ignoring his insecurities and persisting through the issue. He started talking with others in his organization about it. This ultimately led to some good ideas for possible solutions. He did not let those negative emotions take over.

I can’t tell you the number of times I have been sitting at my desk and all I see in front of me is ambiguity, chaos, and uncertainty. It’s almost par for the course of being in management these days. If we are moving forward at all, we will be constantly  facing uncharted territory where we are in over our heads with no immediate solution. We may be uncomfortable and intimidated.

We are perplexed.

 Tim Brown, CEO of the Palo Alto design firm IDEO knows the feeling. He said this in a recent New York Times interview:

” That was one thing that used to make me feel very, very insecure as a business leader – thinking: Am I supposed to have all the answers? Because I know I don’t. And then I finally came to realize, well, nobody else has all the answers either. It’s just that somehow we’ve got this culture of having all the answers… I’m personally perfectly comfortable admitting that I don’t know the answers and that I’m more interested in the questions anyway.”

Brown, and other leaders like him have learned to become comfortable with uncertainty. Instead of needing to know everything, they learn how to ask for help.

William C. Taylor, founder of Fast Company, recently wrote in Harvard Business Blogs that

“…[This is] the mindset that too many of us expect even our most honest leaders to display — the assumption that being “in charge” means having all the answers. In simpler times, fierce personal confidence, a sense of infallibility as a leader, might have been a calling card of success. Today it is a warning sign of failure, whether from bad judgment, low morale among disillusioned colleagues, or sheer burnout from the pressures of always having to be right.

He goes on to say that the smartest and most sustainable path for effective leadership is in asking for help from others. The best ideas are often going to come from customers, from employees, from peers and outsiders.

The Apostle Paul has a similar way of looking at this issue. He says in 2 Corinthians 4:8: 

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”

As leaders, we are not infallible machines. We are flawed and breakable, like those fragile jars of clay that Paul talks about, with all the cracks in it. So, naturally, there will be times when we feel stressed, pressed down, tired, and perplexed. But we can press on with the knowledge that God is present and at work, even in the ambiguity and complexity.

There is a path that will be revealed soon, you just can’t see it yet.

Relax, then.  Don’t panic.

Have faith.

Lean into it.

And don’t forget to ask for help.

Photograph by nAncY, used with permission.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. February 12, 2010 6:28 am

    Good post, Brad. What’s particularly difficult, I think, is that leaders can face two problems. One is that their immediate executive team is likely to think in much the same way (we all have a tendency to hire and promote people like ourselves). And the other is that it’s way too easy to fall into the trap of listening to what we want to hear.

    But you’re absolutely right. Leaders don’t have all the answers, and the people they rely upon for counsel and advice becomes absolutely critical.

  2. February 12, 2010 9:41 am

    Personally, I respect a leader who will admit they don’t have all the answers. The most successful executives I’ve worked with were the ones who were able to assemble a team of people who had strengths in areas they did not. Great post, Brad. Or should I say, lawsome?

    • February 13, 2010 2:40 pm

      Katdish- The problem is that it takes a very secure/humble leader to surround him/herself with people who are equally strong and smart, without perceiving it as a threat. I think this is where trust comes in as an important factor in cementing a leadership team. Good observation.

  3. February 12, 2010 9:52 am

    I think in today’s environment, EVERYONE is being hard-pressed from every side.

    Managers are being pressed for more. Front line the same. Middle managers feel the squeeze. Anxiety in the workplace? It’s everywhere!

  4. February 12, 2010 11:06 am

    It’s comforting to know successful, effective people also feel overwhelmed.

    • February 13, 2010 2:42 pm

      Loren – yes, it’s oddly comforting, and a relief to hear about another leader having a panic attack. None of us are immune from getting to the end of a rope. Thanks for dropping by with your comment!

  5. February 12, 2010 11:31 am

    Brad we need more of this! The all knowing all powerful leader doesn’t resonate any more. We are looking for authenticity.

    I wrote a blog about “Waffles” — What we don’t have is nearly as important as what we do have.

    Thanks for your work,

    Leadership Freak
    Dan Rockwell

  6. February 12, 2010 3:05 pm

    I wish pastors could.Do.This.

    • February 12, 2010 3:28 pm

      I wish we were allowed to…

      • February 13, 2010 2:45 pm

        Don’t pastors have friends or mentors outside of their own church that they can ask for help? If not, then I think that’s a problem of too much isolation. That’s not healthy for anyone, especially a pastor. Tony?? Is this true?

        Well, at the very least, you can ask God for help, right?

  7. February 12, 2010 3:37 pm

    This is an awesome post!

    What amazed me about Jim Collins work (Good to great, Built to Last) was that the “great’ leaders were great because of their surrounding leadership. They had strong people to lean on, get advice from, get corrected by.

    I’m glad we have leaders that don’t have the right answers. I’m equally glad when they realize that and seek a God that does.

  8. February 12, 2010 5:52 pm

    The best leader I ever worked with died recently but two of many the lasting lessons I learnt from him were related to your post.
    The only time it’s wrong to say ‘I don’t know’ is second time you’re asked
    The person you have to worry about is the person who thinks they have all the answers.

  9. February 12, 2010 6:15 pm

    This really is a great post. I think it points to a far deeper lesson: not so much that great people don’t have the answers, but rather that people who want to be great run out of answers.

    In pursuing an infinite God with a plan that we can never more than glimpse for ourselves, it could and should be a sign of growth and in fact goodness when we face trying times. Think about those you left behind in highschool; those who accepted the status quo without question. Think of the buddy who ceased development at age 18 and remains the same irresponsible hoser these years since.

    Running out of the answers is glorious and magical, wonderful entirely in a Godly way. Only then is the sand washed down to solid rock; only there do we find nourishment for our souls. Anything up to that point is tepid, weak, and fit for a dog…basic principle and legalistic unworkability.

    The reality of it is, unless a person is patently weak, immature, and silly, taking the time to acknowledge and deal with at face value our frailty before God can only lead us onwards.

    Love the post.

  10. February 12, 2010 8:04 pm

    I love reading these quotes, Bradley. Though I admit I don’t know much about the business world (maybe I gained my perception through that Michael Douglas movie Wallstreet) I’ve always thought there seems to be a good deal of posturing involved. Your article seems to indicate a move toward more transparency and authenticity. We could use more of both of these in all professions, I think!

    Great post.

  11. February 13, 2010 9:12 am

    I work in an organization that has layers and layers of leaders. I find that humility and the rank on the organizational chart are inversely related. Asking for help is definitely a virtue in a strong leader. But sadly, the bottleneck is always at the top of the bottle.

  12. February 16, 2010 1:00 pm

    I LOVE these list of quotes, esp. seeing that you concluded with our brother, Paul. As believers, we have something so unique and fresh to offer to the world – our leadership comes from a place of humility – and that is where our confidence comes from – to “have faith”, “lean into it” and “to ask for help”.

    You are definitely on fire here on this post. Keep being the contrarian of true leadership – keep on!

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