The 3 things to do when you don’t know what to do

If you’re completely comfortable in your role as leader, this article is not for you. If, however, you’ve ever experienced the sudden realization that people are looking to you to decide something that you have little to no experience in, read on.  Very few people become a leader with deep expertise in all areas they manage.  You’ve almost certainly risen to this level because you have technical expertise but perhaps not in all the areas that you now manage.  Perhaps you now have a global team, or a much larger budget, or executive council responsibilities.  You’re being asked to comment on or decide on matters that you do not have years of experience in.

Does this sound familiar?  Once those eyes have turned to you, you first experience something physical – a tightening in the belly, a constriction in the throat, a pressure behind the eyes.  Your mind recognizes the emotion and it is fear.  If left unchecked, a host of long-term, negative consequences occurs.  In the most extreme cases, a kind of cognitive dissonance emerges – when deep inside, at a subconscious level, a part of you believes you don’t deserve this role.  You put on a mask and act the part of a leader that has the answers and now fear is in the driver’s seat.  Fear doesn’t want to leave so it constantly reminds you that you could get caught out.  You could lose your job.  You could lose the respect of your team and colleagues.  This cognitive dissonance increases and imposter syndrome emerges.  Perhaps you overcompensate and become a bully.  Or try to become a magician and misdirect others to focus on unimportant things that you can control.  Or you enter the vicious cycle where you lose confidence and competence in a repetitive and destructive loop.

This doesn’t have to be.  There are three things you can do in response to this highly normal situation.

But first, let’s acknowledge why this is highly normal.  Unless you are in a highly technical field, you are unlikely to have risen to a leadership position because you know more than a lot of other people.  You have developed expertise in some areas, you work well with others, you have vision and the ability to influence and inspire others and you know how to translate ideas into action.  It’s not the “what” you know alone that’s brought you to this position, it’s the “know how”.

STEP 1: Admit it.

That’s it.  Admit, to yourself, that you don’t know the answer or that you do not have enough lived experience to work your way through the issue.

Sound easy?  That’s good because it’s the hardest step.  You didn’t get to this position without some level of confidence in your abilities and some level of validation of your instincts.  So the normal response from a leader is to leverage that confidence and instinct on a new area of work.  After all, it’s worked so far – why wouldn’t it work again?  This is a ‘half realization” – the leader recognizes the gap but doesn’t want to pause in that moment and so seeks a short-cut to move out of the discomfort.  And sure, maybe you’re in the middle of a board meeting and don’t have the luxury to reflect on the philosophy of growth and learning.  Perhaps you don’t feel like you have the benefit of the doubt from others in the meeting to simply say “I don’t know”.  So you have to fake it.  But what about after the meeting?  If you “got away” with it – are you pausing and developing a longer-term strategy to dealing with this gap?  If you didn’t get away with it, are you rationalizing and looking to find a reason outside of yourself for the embarrassing moment?  

This is the critical moment that will define you as a leader.  


Admit it, to yourself.

Be ok.

Get back to work.

Step 2:  Dive in and listen.

A basic rule of success is that we’re good at what we like to do and we like to do what we’re good at.  Taken to an extreme and that could lead to you avoiding this new, hard situation.  I’ve seen it many times and I bet you have to.  The leader sets up meetings, blusters their way through it because they can’t stand not being the expert in the room,.  Or they feel like they have to contribute as the “leader” and then ask other people to do their job for them by crowdsourcing decisions.  If you’ve designed a truly inclusive decision making process, this is good.  If you’re using a lot of other people’s voices to mask your own lack of knowledge, this isn’t good.  People will catch you out – not the first time, or perhaps even the second- but it doesn’t take long.  And while you believe you’re moving forward, invisible resistance is building in those surrounding you.

So ask for help from the right people.  These may be your direct reports.  Average people in leader positions can’t stand asking their team for help but done with humble confidence, it’s a fantastic way to build relationships and loyalty.  Reasonable people don’t expect you to know everything and they will help you if you ask.  Don’t ask the same question multiple times – but do ask.  Listen.  Take notes.  Study.  Get a coach.  Read articles.  Look at data.  Sit in meetings that others are leading.

This is not about becoming an expert.  You will not become an expert in this new field in a few weeks or months and you’ll not only waste your time (and likely others who are now spending inordinate time getting you up to speed) you could over-rotate and lose sight of other things in your purview.

Know enough to start building instincts and to know who is already best positioned to help shape and drive the issue.

Step 3: Develop the experts around you.

If you’re genuinely a leader, and not someone who’s just in a leader role, you know people.  If you’ve pushed fear out of the driver’s seat (and you have if you’ve followed the first two steps) you can trust your instincts again.  Do you have a colleague or someone on your team who knows this space better than you?  Can you hire someone who does?  If you do have the opportunity to hire, hire someone smarter than you – not someone you can bend to your will.  Surround yourself with people who can improve you and the issues surrounding you.  If you’re a good leader, they will respect you because you give them opportunities, purpose, exposure and credit.  You’re giving them a chance to shine in their area of expertise and you will shine by reflected light.  This is the virtuous circle.  The more you intentionally and smartly leverage the talent around you, the more confidence others will have in you.  You will appear to have a magical quality that is hard to replicate but that you will know comes naturally and intuitively.  

Your job as a leader is not to know everything.  It is to get the work done, well and with integrity, through other people.  They may admire your knowledge and experience, but they will walk through walls for you if you are a leader that gives them purpose, value and recognition.

Don’t be afraid if you don’t know something.  Take inspiration from Michelangelo who inscribed this quote in Italian in a sculpture at age 87 (originally attributed to Seneca): 

Ancora Imparo.

Still, I am learning.

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