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Don’t Panic – You’re Not Supposed to Have All the Answers

September 9, 2011

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.

Fotografia de nAncY, con permiso.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. September 9, 2011 6:05 am

    This is great advice, Brad, and not only for those in leadership positions. Sometimes we try to maintain the ficiton of “we know everything about what we’re responsible for” and it can be equally unnerving and panic-inspiring. I’m not sure where this “know every answer” mentality came from, but it can be debilitating – and often stop good projects from going forward.

  2. September 9, 2011 7:03 am

    And then there’s parenting–another position of leadership and high calling where most of us think we’re supposed to have all the answers, but deep down in our souls know we’re just making it up as we go. As I was reading those familiar words of Paul’s, about being hard pressed, crushed, and perplexed, it occurred to me that those are the times that drive me to Jesus.

  3. September 9, 2011 7:07 am

    Wow, a person can expend an awful lot of energy trying to maintain the appearance of “having all the answers”! Bad use of one’s resources.

    To be aware of what you do not know, and going looking for it, is the mark of a wise person, but it takes pushing ego out of the way.

    This post is very freeing. We live in a culture where knowing things counts for much, one reason we are all news junkies. We don’t want to be the last to know. We have a great need to feel we are on top of everything by knowing, having the answer, not needing to be told by someone else. This is a false god.

  4. September 9, 2011 7:09 am

    If Nothing else, I want my leaders to at least have a semblance of an answer to our problems, but not be a know-it-all.

    It’s a difficult balance. That confidence that we all look to in our leaders must also be humble. That’s why there are so few great leaders.

  5. September 9, 2011 9:35 am

    I’m just reminded of how this is true for Every. Thing., including parenting. I often think I need to know it all or get it right the first time (or at least the next time), and this truth frees me. Such. Grace.

  6. September 9, 2011 10:31 am

    I was reading some marriage book, I think maybe “Love and Respect,” and it talked about how all men deep down feel like impostors. We feel like we don’t really know what we’re doing and this gives us tremendous insecurity. We, in turn, try to project an image that we have it all together. And then when everyone is doing this, it just makes us feel worse. Thanks for letting us see “under the hood” in the lives of executives to let us know that you never have it all figured out.

  7. September 9, 2011 10:31 am

    good advice on knowing and finding answers.

  8. September 11, 2011 5:40 am

    There is a streak of independence in all of us. God, however, wants us to work together. He wants us to forge relationships with each other and realise the value in those around us. So every now and again He throws us a problem and throws the solution to someone else. Then he sets up a connection and waits… At such times He is encouraging us to overcome our pride and teaching us how humility is a greater value, just as a Father passes on wisdom to his little children. God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble. Let’s be switched on to that next time the panic and anxiety hits 🙂

  9. September 14, 2011 2:38 am

    As a pastor, I have faced people who expect me to have all the answers to the questions of life, the universe, God and everything. When I find myself tempted to allow them to continue in their belief that I could be the source of all the wisdom they will ever need I take the time to remind myself that I don’t even know all the questions, so there’s no way I could have all the answers.

    For me, part of maturing in Christian faith is the search for better questions. It seems to me that very often Jesus would hear people’s questions and then gently point out that they were asking the wrong question. He would then go on and introduce a better question, usually by telling a story and then asking his listeners to think about it.

    In faith and life, I believe that asking questions is actually more important than having the ‘right’ answers. I only wish that churches would be more open to people asking questions. After all, asking the right question is, at least in my view, about 90% of finding the ‘right’ answer.

  10. September 20, 2011 9:21 am

    I like this advice: have faith. When I am overwhelmed with anxiety, I let that be a cue that I am not the ruler of the world (yet) and I should lean into the one who is. Great post, Brad!

  11. September 20, 2011 10:06 am

    Good advice, Brad. I remember once telling my HVAC guy what I thought he should do to fix my furnace. Based on his expression, I don’t think he was looking for my advice.

  12. September 20, 2011 12:48 pm

    Thank God. I’m in good company. Especially this week!

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