If You've Ever Questioned Your Leadership Ability Then Read This

Barack Obama

Photo: The White House

Have you ever started some new project, some new challenge — all excited to make an impact — and then feel overwhelmed?A friend of mine was describing her first few days in a new leadership role. She’s starting with a thinking exercise — a strategic review of what’s working, what needs fixing, where are the big opportunities. And she heard a lot in the first 5 days. It felt a bit like a wave overcoming her or like drinking from a fire hose. In other words, it was daunting.

She started to question herself: Am I really going to be able make an impact? What am I doing here? Who was crazy enough to hire me into this role?  She got daunted enough that she started to question her ability to lead.

And she started thinking to herself: “I should already know how to do this.” Because that is what leaders are supposed to do. And her “should” statement in her head was, if she didn’t already know the answer, she wasn’t the right leader for the role.

I’d like to challenge that.

Yes, we champions of teams or projects should know something and clearly we do. The bias that we should “know already” assumes you’ve solved that particular problem before. In today’s changing and challenging climate, that’s not often the case. At higher levels of problem solving, the brilliance is in knowing what’s the next question to ask and how to ask it …to unfold the answer.

You see, if my friend knows “the answer” this time, that’s one thing. But what is more powerful for her team, and for her organisation, is if they arrive at the answer(s) so that the capability of their ability to figure out the next problem is built.

Some advice for this situation:

  • Remember, when we are in self-doubt, we are usually operating out of fear. Somebody wise once said to me, “We can operate out of fear or love, and nothing good ever came from when we we operate out of fear.” Instead, love the process rather than fear the ambiguity.
  • Perhaps the “answer” is to figure out what questions need to be asked and answered to know more. Build a list of questions that could help you map the situation more fully.
  • Redefine what it means to lead.  Leading doesn’t come from knowing already; it comes from knowing how to know. Easy problems are easy. If you want to help your company solve the tough problem nuts, you need to get comfortable with the fact that you will need to do more discovering to figure it out.

Let’s put to rest the notion that the goal of strategy creation is to get to one big win. That’s important, no doubt. But the ultimate goal is not to win once, but rather to build both the capability and capacity that power our organisations to win repeatedly. In other words, getting strategy right depends on creating the conditions that let us outshine our competitors, and to outshine them on many levels—to out-think them, out-create them, and out-innovate the other players in the market.

Collaborative strategy and leaderships plays into that specifically because it allows you to collaborate organizationally, pick from a relevant set of ideas, and then quickly and efficiently make decisions in the open. The framework of collaboration allows a whole organisation to think and to make tough qualitative decisions, which is the key to winning moves.

So when in doubt about what you “should already know”, maybe just remember that great leaders help other people be better problem solvers, too —  and when you do that, you’ll only not only solve today’s problem, you’ll have built strength into ability to solve the next problem, and the problem after that.

Nilofer Merchant is CEO and Chief Strategist of Rubicon Consulting. She has honed her unique, collaborative approach to solving tough problems while working with and for companies like Adobe, Apple, Nokia, HP and others; she’s also the author of “The New How.” This post was originally published on her blog, and is republished with permission.

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