How I learned that being a leader doesn’t mean I have have to know it all.

This post shares my reflections on a valuable lesson learned and offers some effective coaching questions to help you avoid the same pitfall!

Being a leader is HARD! There is no single blueprint that will help you to navigate the complex challenges you will encounter as a leader. The biggest pitfall I’ve observed through my own experience as a leader as well as through coaching experienced leaders, is thinking you need to know it all. That you need to have all the answers and all the solutions to all of the problems that your team and business will experience.

My mistake

I learned a valuable and very tough lesson in one role where I made this very mistake of thinking that as the leader, I needed to know-it-all. In this scenario, the mistake I made was to take full ownership of the solution to a team problem to be mine and mine alone. What I mean by this is that I took the full weight of responsibility for the problem as my own, with the corollary being that I took the solution as being one I fully needed to own too. Whilst taking responsibility is of course the role of a leader, what I am getting at is more subtle. By thinking I needed to solve the problem, I completely failed to take account of the fact that the team were amply capable of identifying the right solution. By failing to engage with them in the solution discovery, I failed to secure their buy in to the solution that I proposed. The point being that I presented the solution to the team as a fait accompli when the right way would have been to engage the team in finding their own solution.

Ultimately the solution (which wasn’t a terrible solution, it was feasible enough and in fact was one that had been noted by some of the team) wasn’t implemented, the team lost their faith in me as their leader and shortly after I left the organisation wondering where it had all gone so wrong.

The lesson

Yes, I needed to take responsibility for the problem getting resolved but my role as the leader was to cultivate the right environment and nurture the right behaviours from the team to empower them to identify their own solutions to the problem.

To this day, this has been one of my biggest lessons in understanding the importance of engaging colleagues in matters that affect them, and crucially, deeply understanding what being a leader really means. I spend time every day thinking about what kind of leader I am and what kind of leader I want to be. My own litmus test is that I want colleagues to follow me because they choose to. Not because the have to based on my position of seniority in relation to theirs. Importantly for me, the unsolicited feedback I get (good and bad!) tells me how I am doing and what I need to work on.

How to develop your leadership style

There is no blueprint for being a great leader. There are many models which can help you to identify your natural style and how to develop. However I’ve come to realise that asking some tried and tested coaching questions generates the most self-awareness which leads to identifying your most authentic and effective leadership style.

Here are some of my favourites:

  • What assumptions might I be making right now? How can I check these out and test if they are right?
  • How would I feel in this situation (when thinking about a team)?
  • What evidence do I have to tell me that this is the right course of action? Who have I asked? How do I know?
  • What else could I do /do differently to get the same intended outcome?
  • What resources/skills/people do I need? What will this mean for them?
  • How will I know if (the solution) has been a success? What evidence will I have? What things will I notice?
  • Do I know what people really think? Have I asked them? Do they feel comfortable telling me? How do I know?

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