At one of the organizations where I was in senior leadership, we held regular day-long orientations for new leaders. Nearly every time, when we opened the floor for questions, someone would ask, “What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned as a leader?”
I always answered, “Be good at asking questions instead of thinking your job is to have all the answers.”
Too often, as leaders, we think it’s best to be the one with the answers. In Jim Collins’s book, Good to Great, he describes that leadership model as “the genius with a thousand helpers.”
While the leader often feels good about their own wisdom and gifts, there’s one significant problem with this line of thinking.
When you’re a leader, you aren’t judged on your performance alone. You’re judged on the performance of your team — whether or not you’re with them.
A leader who believes he or she must have all the answers tends to manage in a way that isn’t always best for the organization or the team. While their intent is good, that leader will:
- Hire less skilled or experienced workers, keeping the leader as the most knowledgeable.
- Want subordinates who follow orders without question.
- Choose team members who affirm the knowledge and brilliance of the leader.
- Distrust everyone else’s idea.
Have you ever worked with someone like this? I have, and way too often.
These leaders feel affirmed when others need them. They enjoy catching fish for their team instead of teaching them to fish. And if the leader leaves, the team is usually in trouble. They’ve relied so heavily on one person that they can’t function on their own.
While the people of Israel were traveling from Egypt to the Promised Land, Moses was the only person acting as their judge. He spent his days solving everyone else’s problems, and he was burning out. His father-in-law saw it and knew Moses couldn’t continue that way much longer.
He said, “What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone. Listen now to me and I will give you some advice … Select capable men from all the people … have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves. That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you. (Exodus 18:17b-22)
If you try to do everything yourself, you’ll create a bottleneck that will wear you out.
I encourage you to be a different kind of leader. You don’t have to be the smartest person on the team. Instead, choose to:
- Hire for a diversity of skills and opinions.
- Get better at asking questions, allowing team members the space to solve problems without you.
- Embrace being respectfully challenged.
- Encourage new ideas.
- Hire those who are adaptable when circumstances change.
The most important duty of a leader is to choose their team members. Don’t settle when you hire. Continue to search for the right people.
In doing so, you help the team, which helps you and your organization.
And remember, start getting good at asking questions and stop trying to have all the answers.