When in doubt, ask questions.
We all think of leadership as standing up in front of a room and delivering an inspiring message to a group. Give them the game plan, tell them what to and how you are going to succeed. In difficult times, it’s letting them know everything will be alright. Make them feel better, and lay out the game plan to get things back on track. The leader is supposed to stand in front of the group, show strength, and make statements.
But that’s not what leadership is really all about. That looks great in sports movies, but it doesn’t usually work out that way. Leadership is hard and often uncomfortable. While you feel like you are supposed to have the answers, often you don’t.
I’ve stood in front of my team many times and told them I didn’t know. I wish I had the answer, I wish I knew the right thing to say right now, but I just don’t. Transparency is critical for effective leadership. And if I didn’t know, I told my players I didn’t know.
We are facing incredibly challenging times right now, with a lot of emotion and uncertainty. The George Floyd murder has impacted everyone and the fact that we are all pretty much separated from our everyday lives has made it harder to process. We don’t get to see many of the people we are closest with on a daily basis. We don’t get to see our workmates, our friends or our teams. So with everything going on in the country we are left on our own to make sense of it all.
A lot of people are struggling with how they feel, and what do do about it. I know I am.
Whenever I wasn’t sure what to say, I wouldn’t make any statements. I’d ask questions. One of the best things you can do as a leader is to know what you don’t know. If you aren’t sure what to say, or how to process what you are feeling, don’t say anything. Ask questions. You’ll learn a lot about your team.
I would always start with two basic questions. 1) How are you feeling? 2) What can we do about it? I think that’s a great way to start, especially with the challenges we are facing now. Many people aren’t really sure how they are supposed to feel. And not a lot of people know what to do next. We all feel awful, we all want to do something to help, but there really aren’t any easy answers. Being confused and unsure is natural right now. Just because you are the leader, doesn’t mean you should feel differently.
I’m sure there’s a lot of pressure because your group is looking to you for leadership. So give it to them. Ask them how they feel. Explain to them how you feel. Let them know you are unsure. Be transparent, and show them some vulnerability. That will make them feel comfortable. Get them talking. Learn what they might need from you. Let them know it’s okay to be confused, to be uncertain. That will make them feel more reassured than any statements you can make that don’t ring true. Have a conversation, get them to share their emotions, and then start to work on how you can help.
“People will forgive you for not being the leader you want to be, but they will never forgive you for not being the leader you claim to be.” – Diane Sawyer.
Authenticity is leadership. If you aren’t completely genuine, especially during tough times, your credibility is shattered. Leadership is situational. Context matters. And we are in an unprecedented situation right now in our country. There is no playbook, because this combination of global pandemic and national outrage has never been seen before.
You aren’t supposed to have all of the answers. But you can ask the right questions. Get to know how your team is feeling, and let the dialogue happen from there. Then start to ask about solutions. Be honest about how you are feeling, even if you are unsure. There are no easy answers here, and it’s okay to say that. Sometimes leadership is being honest about what you don’t know.