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The surprisingly powerful phrase all leaders should be prepared to say

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BOSS talks to three leadership experts about the importance of saying “I don’t know”.

Euan Black – Work and Careers Reporter, Financial Review

May 3, 2023

Admitting we don’t know something can often feel like showing weakness. Especially if we are leading a team and people are relying on our skills and judgement.

But experts argue that saying “I don’t know” helps leaders build trust with their team.

Nick Wailes, director of the Australian Graduate School of Management at UNSW Business School, says it is “incredibly powerful” when leaders say they don’t know the answer.

“It gives permission to people who work with you to suggest answers and identify solutions,” Wailes tells BOSS.

At the heart of it is the recognition that success is not achieved by one individual alone, regardless of their position in the hierarchy.

Business is a team effort, and the best leaders know how to bring people together and get the best out of them.

Wailes says this is one of two crucial functions that senior leaders must perform. The second is creating a shared vision for the company.

“They say, ‘The purpose of this organisation is this, and we’re gonna go there’,” he says. “So they give everyone a purpose and a direction to align around.”

Leadership expert Margot Faraci puts it another way: “They have to decide which hills we’re going to climb, and how we’re going to climb them.”

Setting the culture

They don’t need to have all the answers. But they do need to create a good culture and back themselves to make the big calls, Faraci says.

“They are the ones who will set the culture, and we know that culture is the thing that actually drives performance.”

Leaders must also realise that leadership is a privilege and not an entitlement, says Kirstin Ferguson, a company director and author of the book Head and Heart: The Art of Modern Leadership.

Ferguson says leaders all too often consider themselves the stars of the show and need to be seen as the smartest people in the room. But the most effective leaders understand that it’s not all about them, and their main job is to help others realise their full potential.

As Ferguson sees it, the leaders who have stood out on the world stage recently have not only relied on their technical skills, but have also tapped into their “empathy, self-awareness and courage to speak up”.

‘Lead with their head and their heart’

“If you think about people like [former New Zealand Prime Minister] Jacinda Ardern, or [Ukrainian President] Volodymyr Zelensky, they stand out on the world stage because they are different kinds of leaders,” Ferguson says.

“They’re not afraid to lead with their head and their heart. They’re not simply relying on their position to gain trust and authority. They’re also willing to listen to the voices of others. They are aware of the impact they’re having on other people. They’re able to lead with humility and empathy. And they stand out.”

Taking cues from these types of leaders, top executives are increasingly integrating more of their personas at home into their personas at work, Ferguson says.

“For so long, we’ve been taught that the person you are at work is different to who you might be in the rest of your life, and that’s exhausting,” she says.

Instead, leaders should strive to bring into the office the empathy they have with their kids, or the self-awareness and humility they feel after receiving feedback from their spouse.

“Because it’s those exact same skills that help you be the kind of leader that others feel comfortable to talk to, and to truly know and trust,” Ferguson says.

Never too early to start

Ferguson’s thoughts on leadership extend well beyond the C-suite and those with “manager” in their title, too. She describes these positions as “formal” leadership roles and says they do not capture all types of leaders.

Her definition of a leader is much broader. It is anyone who “impacts others through their words, actions and behaviours”.

Consequently, she believes that employees should take an interest in leadership as soon as they join the workforce. Or better still, while they’re still at school.

“The important point is, whether or not you believe it or recognise it, you are impacting people around you through the way you conduct yourself in your role,” Ferguson says. “And so, they’re judging you already for the leader you are, or [the leader] they believe you could be.

“So it should be motivation to want to do it as best you can, and think about the legacy that you’re going to leave.”

Aspiring leaders do not need permission to start leading either, Ferguson says.

A good place to start is by speaking up in meetings rather than waiting to be called on, offering solutions to problems, and using your initiative wherever possible.

“It’s taking the role that you’re in now and seeing that as a real opportunity to shine,” Ferguson says. “Because from that, opportunities will come.”

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