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Strong leaders say “I don’t know. I need help.”

February 15, 2017

I was talking recently to a colleague that happens to not only run a successful manufacturing business, but is a practicing physician. As we compared notes on leadership, some interesting parallels emerged between leading a business and leading a patient care team. Notably, leaders and physicians are often expected to have all of the answers; when we don’t, it’s usually taken as a sign of weakness.

As we reflected on this, we agreed that often the best decisions we’ve made came from those times when we admitted to our teams that we didn’t know what the right path was. This admission, followed up by asking for the team’s advice and feedback, often resulted in the team coming up with better solutions than us leaders could have thought of on our own.

Consider this: Patients are better served when the entire medical team is consulted, just as customers are better served when an entire team is involved in addressing a business need.

There is an African proverb that states: “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

To make things happen, to develop the big ideas and get amazing results, you need to admit that you can’t do it on you own. And I’ll let you in on something I have learned the hard way in my career: It can be liberating to say “I don’t know. I need help.”

Now this doesn’t mean that we don’t make decisions. As leaders, we’re accountable for the final decisions that are made and the results that follow. Getting there, however, should be an exercise in collaboration. (Note: In a crisis situation, collaboration may not always be possible due to the condensed deadline for a decision.)

From my experience, there are five key steps to arriving at better solutions:

  1. Admit that you don’t know the answer and that you need help – this in itself will motivate the team to rally behind you and the cause.
  2. Define the mission from the outset, and what the end state looks like.
  3. Draw on the diversity of your team and the power of collaboration to solve the problem.
  4. Do quick feedback loops to check, validate, and re-test ideas. Fail fast and fail cheap to come up with the best solution.
  5. Make a decision. Sometimes we get so caught up in research and planning, we don’t actually make a decision. Force yourself to make a decision and more forward to act.

Note: It doesn’t matter what type of team you’re working with - medical, sports, leadership, etc. - these steps are applicable to all team environments.

So the next time you’re not sure what the right direction is, turn to your team. Let them know that you don’t know and that you need help. I promise you’ll be amazed at what this will inspire.

Continued success,


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