Great leaders say “I don’t know”

Sometimes as leaders we can feel like we are supposed to know everything and get it right every time. Mark Burgess, CEO of Iceberg Digital gives his thoughts on how he has learnt to lead a different way.

Great leaders say “I don’t know”

When I started my first ever business back in 2001, I could never have foreseen the journey I would go on as a business owner and leader. Over 20 years later I am not only much older, but I run my companies a totally different way too.

In those early days and probably for the first 15 years of being in business, my workforce was an extension of me. Pretty much every job they did had been a job I once did. I had told them how to do it and they came to me with any problems or questions they had, and I would do my best to solve them.

Until around 2016 when I started to change our organisation from being a number of jobs that I could do better than the team I employed into one whereby I left the team to figure out how to improve the way they did those jobs to the point whereby they did them much better than I ever could, whilst I concentrated on navigating the direction of the company.

This flipped my thinking about leadership on its head because when team members would come to me with questions about their department I would genuinely find myself in a position whereby they knew better than me, so for the first time, instead of giving them the solutions I would say ‘I don’t know’.

But I have since found out that great leaders have the confidence to say ‘I don’t know’ rather than lying to their team or even to themselves, until the point where they do know. This does not make you a poor leader, as you can discuss the problem and then lead the way.

Once you empower your staff to own their department you create a disagreeing culture where your team ask more questions than they say statements, which is key to gathering your information. Don’t shut your team down while you are figuring it out as they may have some critical information for you.

To do this try to find independent thinkers who don’t care that you are the boss.

Push people to defend their ideas. Have people that will do the same to you. Argue like you are right and listen like you are wrong. Create real, violent debate to make decisions, not just a group of people that ‘agree with the boss’ and importantly don’t use your skills, age, authority, and position to influence everyone else’s decision making.

Because of this environment, no important decision will ever have unanimous agreement, there will always be some disagreement in the air until you have heard all of the arguments. Then, in the end, the leader makes the call.

Once that decision has been made, if you have the right people they will then unite behind that decision and your leadership and work as a team to achieve your vision.

Working this way has allowed me to remove myself from the everyday tasks of the organisation and given me the time to have clarity on where we are going and how we will get there, to be a leader rather than a manager.

Where do you begin with this? One simple way to start is to look around at your team and think about what they each do, if they all do a mishmash of jobs that overlap, try to segment their roles so that they can each take some ownership for something. Then sit with them and ask them to have a think about how that part of the business could be improved. No need for them to answer on the spot but let them know you would like them to take control of improving that part of the business and that in a couple of weeks you would like them to come to you with their ideas on what could change and why.

The next problem you will face as a leader is forcing yourself not to overrule everything they come back with. If you do this, you will destroy all of their empowerment and be tied to that part of the business forever. You must back their ideas, even if it is not the way you would do it, unless of course their ideas are so extreme that you must question if they are the right person for your company.

Start here. Become a leader that empowers people and in return you will be empowered to lead instead of manage.

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