Leadership is all about the unfavorable answers

We want to solve problems but we also have to admit that we can’t solve all of them.

In my last article on silent culture killers, I talked about failing to address rumors as one of the things that seem harmless on the surface but can do quite a lot of damage if left unfixed. I felt that point alone merited an article of its own. Consider this my 2020 reflection (or at least the first of several).

If there’s anything I’ve learned in this difficult and strange year, it’s that transparency and safety is what I value the most as a leader.

If there’s anything I’ve learned in this difficult and strange year, it’s that transparency and safety is what I value the most as a leader. Notice I use the word “is” to describe the two things. That’s intentional. I don’t believe one can exist without the other. If you don’t feel safe, it’s hard to be fully transparent. If there’s a lack of transparency, on the other hand, it’s equally difficult to feel safe and secure.

Amidst the uncertainty the pandemic has brought about, I’ve had to face many questions of when things would go back to normal and what we would do as an organization in the meantime. I’ve needed to address potential (and, in one case, actual) resignations by members of the team who felt a need for greener pastures and fairly so. In many of these discussions, I didn’t have a good answer to give. Rarely have I had to address such difficult questions as I have this year. Honestly, I don’t think I remember really rising up to the challenge as I have tried to in the last few months.

For most leaders, the hardest words to say are “I don’t know” or “I don’t have a solution at the moment”.

From here on, if I’m asked what leadership is about, I would say it’s about being able to give unfavorable responses. Yes, solving problems is the best case scenario, but that’s really easy to do when things are in your scope of control or influence. When it’s not, it can be much easier to blame the circumstances and other people and wash your hands of the matter. For most leaders, the hardest words to say are “I don’t know” or “I don’t have a solution at the moment”. But, as I mentioned in my last article, it’s important to address the tough questions, even if you don’t have a satisfactory answer.

At the very least, people want to be heard. And they dislike lip service. As leaders, we definitely want to solve problems but we also have to admit that we can’t solve all of them. A firm “no” or even a definite “I don’t know” can be our best tool in times like these. A hopeful “for now” can make it even better.

P. S. While this all might have sounded a bit bleak, I’m happy that our company has actually weathered the whole situation quite well. We’ve survived without any major revenue loss and with no need for any layoffs. Of course, this did not go without making some tough decisions and leaving some questions ultimately unanswered… for now. Sadly, a lot of people have had it worse. I surely hope for a better 2021 for everyone!

If you liked this post, subscribe to my mailing list or follow me on Facebook to get instant updates! Originally published at https://techmanagement.life on December 7, 2020.

I’m an engineering manager and entrepreneur who loves exchanging ideas and helping others become better at what they do. I run a blog at techmanagement.life

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