Why great leaders admit they don’t always have the answers

Why great leaders admit they don’t always have the answers

by Philip Lop 


As a leader, people will (and should) look up to you. You are, after all, the person who sets the direction and ensure that everybody is working to the same agenda. It shouldn’t come as a surprise when your people expect you to have the answers to their questions.

Will you always have the answers? No, of course you won’t. Nobody knows everything (even if there are plenty of people around that would have you believe otherwise.) One of the qualities that makes a great leader is when he or she is able to openly admit that he or she doesn’t have the answers but is prepared to do what is necessary to get them. Crucially, of course, he or she then does just that.

It creates respect and trust

Nobody wants to work for a ‘know-it-all’ any more than they want to work for a computer. Admitting that you don’t have the answer humanises you in front of your team. It shows that you’re not perfect and that you’re prepared to admit it and should, therefore, encourage them to do the same. Making decisions based on guesswork or conjecture is dangerous at any level. Admitting you don’t have the answers is a great way of leading by example.

It allows you room to think

In the heat of the moment, it isn’t always possible to make the right decision. Sometimes, you need to step back, gather more information and opinion and reflect on what to do. Admitting that you don’t know the answer is a perfect way to do just that. If you’re being pressed to make a very important decision, you should only do so when you are comfortable that you have all the information that you need. It isn’t a sign of weakness to admit that you don’t know. It’s what happens next that defines you.

It engenders confidence in your capabilities

When somebody openly admits that they don’t know the answer, they almost automatically become more convincing when they tell their team that they do know the answer. If somebody is prepared to be honest and say, ‘I don’t know’ they’d have no reason to lie or bluff when their answer is more positive. It’s another way to build trust. It sends the message that what you say is credible and reliable – great qualities in any leader.

It drives your personal development agenda

If you keep finding yourself saying ‘I don’t know’ to the same sort of questions, then it soon becomes pretty clear what sort of things you need to focus on. It’s a quick dip-test for any kind of situation and a great mental checklist for personal development. Every time you say ‘I don’t know’ immediately follow it with the words ‘but I now intend to…’ and a clear action. Acknowledging that you don’t know something is a great way to grow a personal development checklist. ‘I don’t know what Pareto analysis is but I now intend to find out and implement it as part of my management toolkit.’ See how it works?

Many leaders believe that there is weakness in admitting that you don’t know something. Even in a military setting, leaders simply cannot have all the answers. What defines their greatness is how they go about getting and acting upon them.


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