So much has changed recently and it’s taken a toll on all of us. I can see that you have the best interests of others at heart, which is why I feel I can write this letter. In all the constant changes, it has become clear that no one knows what is going on or how to respond. The reality is, how could you? No one expects you to know. The problem is, we can see you are pretending. You give answers and act like you know, when we know you don’t. The best thing you could say right now is the truth: “I don’t know, but we are going to figure it out together.” The whiplash and quick pivots are draining and frustrating. The whole truth would be refreshing and leave little room for argument. Please be honest with us and say what we all already know is the truth. You don’t know, and that is completely understandable.
Why Being Honest with Your Team is Essential
The letter above could have been written by or to so many of us in the past two years. The changes in direction and approach for so many organizations have been dizzying. At work, at school, and in public life—change has been rapid, constant, and sometimes, seemingly, without deep thought or logic.
There is a simple but powerful three-word phrase that has become increasingly difficult for leaders to say: “I don’t know.”
The exponential acceleration of the pace of change in our world has exposed how little we can predict and know—yet rare is the leader that is honest about that fact. This results in distrust, burnout, and frustration, the antitheses of what leaders are attempting to build. When a leader acts like they have the answers (that everyone knows they can’t possibly have), they can come across looking arrogant, foolish, delusional, or worse. The transparency and vulnerability required to admit perplexity can be challenging to muster, but valuable to a team expecting its leader to model integrity.
Remember, leadership is the stewardship of our influence–so all of us are leaders, and all of us are responsible for accepting responsibility in situations and decision-making where we may not have the answers.
I was just on an international vacation with my wife and in-laws where we had to make a lot of decisions: which way to go to find the taxis, where to eat, when to leave to arrive at our excursion on time, etc. With me being able to speak the local language (français) they often looked to me for answers, often ones that I did not have. It was difficult and frustrating to admit to them that even though I understood signs and what people were saying, I was experiencing that place for the first time, just like them.
On occasions where I did not have the answer and just picked a thing to do, it often ended in frustration because I missed the choice that would have been best for everyone, and they felt left out of the decision-making—the responsibility and blame were all on me. Had I been honest and said, “I don’t know what to do, let’s figure it out together. I’ll translate the information we have, and we can decide from there,” I would have built more trust and we would have made better decisions together.
The implication of not knowing, for all of us, is simple going forward: be honest when you don’t know. New market conditions, challenges, situations, and opportunities are going to reveal themselves. What are you going to do when you face the unknown? It is honest and safe to say the obvious, “I don’t know yet, but we are going to honor our values, no matter what comes.” That is fair and honest, and it leaves room for growth. It’s a powerful statement from a leader who accepts responsibility and accepts the reality that they can’t possibly know what to do when faced with inconceivable situations.
Get Started Admitting “I Don’t Know” Today
Now you may feel convicted and be thinking to yourself, “I wish there was something I could do about neglecting to admit ‘I don’t know’ in the past.” It’s not too late. There is power in admitting mistakes to your team, leaders, and followers. In written form, verbally, or otherwise—apologizing for how you lead during the crises of the past two years may be a good place to start. Plus, it might make a significant difference in your relationships.
As the pandemic and the turmoil of the past two years carried on it was clear that one truth was universal: no one had ever led through something like this. Yet, so many of us put up a “know-it-all” front, like we had the right answers to impossible questions. At some point, it may be nice to hear something like this:
“In 2020 and beyond, as your [insert leadership title] we made many decisions on little to no information. Each new development that led us to change policy was appoached with gusto and aspirations, occassionaly even at your expense as our constituents. Never were we willing to state the obvious, ‘we do not know what to do, but we’re trying.’ We value your trust in our leadership and apologize sincerely for not accepting the fact that we were often in the dark and being asked to lead into the light. Although nothing can be done about the past, we are sorry. Yet we resolve, in the future, to strive for transparency and patience.”
When have you made a decision, for your family or your team, when you really did not know what to do, so you just chose something? We all have. None of us are more than human. In the face of all the frustrations as leaders and followers, we must remember that even the most famous and powerful person is still just that—a person. Remember in the face of not knowing to:
- Give grace to yourself.
- Assume the best in others.
- Speak the truth in kindness and in love.
Do those three things, and you’ll be off to a great start in leadership.