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Audacious Leadership

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There are two days in the English calendar when Serfs were allowed to upset the traditional order.  All-Fools Day – April 1st.  And 12th Night (the 12th day of Christmas).  The Fool gave the orders and even the King obeyed.  But it’s nearly June and I want to inject a bit of audacity into leadership.

When I think about the leadership principle that gets many of our Ignite students thinking – it’s the one about asking questions without being attached to the ‘right’ answer. 

We call this the ‘Don’t Know/Ask’ quadrant. ask_don't know

Why is asking – without necessarily having all the answers – so audacious?

Think about what it took to be promoted into a supervisory role, management or leadership.  You worked your way up.  You had to be good, technically, at your job.  You had to deliver.  You had to know your way around the organisation.

So when you stepped into that first rung of the ladder – did you feel the need to know it all and tell people what to do?

Don’t worry – this is normal behaviour.  People need to feel in control in rapidly changing circumstances.  ‘Knowing’ is a way of feeling in control. Telling is a way of showing you are.  Well, maybe.

You can’t know it all.  You just can’t. 

Especially not in today’s increasingly complex world of work.

Plus, that’s why you have all your technical specialists in the team. It’s their job to know that stuff.

And there’s nothing worse than someone telling a subject matter expert something superficial about their own specialist subject.

And then there’s the tell bit. 

If you tell someone what to do all the time, they’ll never take on responsibility.  They’ll get resentful.  They’ll let you take on all the burdens and keep their heads down.  Sound familiar?

Plus they’ll become dependent on you.  Sounds great at first.  But trust me.  Really.  Trust me.  This is NOT a good place.

  • If they become dependent on you for every decision, you become the bottleneck.
  • You’re the only decision-maker – and guess who gets the blame for bad decisions.
  • There’ll be a queue of people at your door for decisions, signatures and other signs and symptoms of back-protection.

Good decisions come from discussions – even heated debate – by exploring a fuller range of options.  Not just what you want.  And not just what they want either.

So do you really want your team to become resentful and dependent?

What about the Know/Ask quadrant?

Why ask when you know ‘the’ answer?  Three reasons:

  1. Because ‘the’ answer is not the only answer.  That answer may have worked for you – in different situations; different contexts.
  2. Technology has moved on.  There may be a better solution today.   It may not work at all anymore.  Anyone remember Betamax video players?
  3. Because we need more than one option to make sensible choices.
    • Where do these options come from?  By asking your team what they think, the chances are you’ll generate a higher number of interesting, viable options. And add to your store of knowledge.

The audacious bit is – by asking your team members what they think, you’ll be showing respect for their opinion. 

And you’ll share responsibility across the group.  Not just take the burden on your shoulders.

So let’s stretch this a bit further….

You’ve brought at least one answer to the table.  Your team has brought more.  How about asking a question where you have no clues as to the ‘right’ answer.

When you do that, you’re in the ‘Ask/Don’t Know’ quadrant.

How audacious does that feel?

This is where the best coaching comes from.  The best leadership.  You’ve burnt your boats. You’re not relying on your  knowledge alone.  You’re trusting your team.

The emotional value of feeling trusted is huge.

  • Body language changes
  • People have more energy

This links to our Ignite leadership coaching programme. 

I remember one young man  who reported on the value of asking  ‘don’t know’ questions.

“I’ve resolved something I’ve been losing sleep over for 6 months now.  In 10 minutes.

My partner here asked me open questions.  We explored the issue from all angles.  It’s sorted. 

I don’t know what my company paid for this course but sorting this out has more than covered it.  I don’t just mean my place.  I don’t just mean for everyone here today.  Whatever they’re paying you out of this year’s L&D budget, this ‘Ask/Don’t Know’ stuff has saved more than that.”

Don’t take my word for it.  Try it out. 

  • Ask an open question to which you don’t necessarily know the answer
  • Prepare to be surprised
  • Enjoy the dynamic discussions that result

And the ‘Don’t Know/Tell’ quadrant?

Have you ever worked with someone who clearly doesn’t know what s/he’s talking about but is still prepared to tell you what to do?  Then you know what I’m talking about.  Don’t go there….

I hope you’ll try out some ‘Ask/Don’t Know’ open questions.  And don’t worry – as a leader you’re not really burning your boats.  You’ll still have your skills, experience and know-how  to assess and mitigate the risks.  Give it a try, and let’s get a bit more audacity into leadership.


Author: Helen Caton Hughes

Leadership and Team Coach based on inspirational and practical tools. Works with leaders around the world; trains coaches to International Coach Federation standards. Passionate about finding best ways for leaders to inspire themselves and get the best from their teams

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