If You Want a Leadership Position, Stop Asking for Answers

It’s frustrating to be passed over for the leadership jobs we want. We’re always left trying to figure out why.

The answer is in our questions. 

Uh oh, your non-leadership is showing. 

Is this you (or someone you know)? 

When your company announces an upcoming downsizing, do you ask: 

  • Is this going to affect my department?
  • When will the decision be made?
  • What should I be doing to prepare for any changes?
  • What will happen to my career in the new environment? 

When you’re assigned to a ground-breaking project, do you ask: 

  • How do we know this is a good idea?
  • What assurances do I have that we’ll succeed?
  • If it doesn’t work, what will happen?

 When your boss gives you a special assignment, do you ask: 

  • What exactly do you want me to do?
  • How do you want me to approach this?
  • Whom should I use as resources? 
  • What happens if I can’t get it done by the deadline? 

The answer from your boss will likely be, “I don’t know.” Sometimes s/he’ll also add “yet.” 

Effective leaders have a tolerance for ambiguity! 

Good leaders give clear direction but often don’t get it for themselves. Theirs is a world of complex new challenges, change, the unexpected, and risk. They face a moving business target each day. Much of this we don’t see. 

A leader who can’t lead without absolutes won’t be a leader very long. 

Leaders need a tolerance for ambiguity—an ability to act when situations and conditions are in flux, unclear, and often unpredictable. They can’t always wait for the fog to clear before they act to nip a problem in the bud or get out ahead of the competition. 

Instead of precise answers, most leaders act on best guesses. In many cases, they look to us to help them turn those guesses into successes. They need us to bring our ingenuity and talent to every challenge and deliver a fix.

 Be prepared for your unexpected leadership test. 

Every assignment we get is a chance to showcase the leader within. (And it doesn’t matter where we are on the organization chart.) When we’re tapped, we can either ask a zillion “what do I do now” questions or we can take the lead. 

FYI: When you ask your boss “those” questions, s/he is thinking three things: 

  1. “If I knew how to proceed, I wouldn’t be asking you.”
  2. “If I have to tell you how to go about solving this problem, I may as well do it myself.”
  3. “I’ve picked the wrong person for this assignment.”  

Instead, you want every leadership opportunity to showcase your skills, especially your tolerance for ambiguity, like in these situations: 

  • The proverbial sky is falling at work, so you step forward and offer a solution that immediately stops the bleeding, even if it’s only temporary. 
  • No one can make sense out of conflicting directives, customer demands, and/or technology changes, so you present a process to help untangle the confusion. 
  • Everyone is turned inside out over the elimination of a huge block of jobs, so you articulate a positive perspective on ways you and your peers can continue to grow in the company. 

Find your own answers

When you can figure out what to do in a tight spot, unfreeze people who are fearful, find the upside during a calamity, and restore control when things seem in disarray, your leadership brand goes up a hundred-fold. 

Not only have you delivered actionable value, you’ve created a following that will sing your praises, including your boss. When you replace a demand for answers with the willingness to act in spite of uncertainty, you have become an ally to your boss, helping to lift the weight of the ambiguity s/he is balancing.  That builds a relationship that positions you for the leadership position you want. What could be better!

6 thoughts on “If You Want a Leadership Position, Stop Asking for Answers

  1. Hi Dawn-

    I think you nailed this post with the suggestion to build a tolerance for ambiguity. Oh, and how people reveal themselves by the questions they ask…very interesting, and so true.

    Last week I rec’d notice that my private practice office is going to be moved to another office in the suite complex…”Ugh, nooooo” was my initial reaction. I then decided to exercise openness, flexibility, and hope in place of fear, doom, and negative thinking. I haven’t seen the new setup yet, but I’m tolerating the mixed feelings with “it might actually be nicer.” If not, I’ll find another office.

    Thanks for this insightful read :).

    • Thanks for your great comment, Linda. I love your attitude about the importance of staying positive and the fact that there are always other options. None of us likes to be caught by surprise. But when we are it’s a test of all the sage advice we give to others. Well, all I can say is, that happens to me. Sometimes I remind myself to take my own advice. Most of it’s pretty good -)! Wonderful to hear from you. I hope that new office is dreamy…there’s always fen sui!

  2. Thanks Dawn,
    Yes, I remind myself to take own advice too! Love this article, because we cannot afford to show vulnerability at work with people standing in line to take job. But I think it is important that we have a place to voice concerns.
    Truly Irene

    • I appreciate your comment, Irene. The issue for me isn’t so much about vulnerability but our willingness to move ahead even when we don’t have all the information we’d like to have. It’s that whole thing about letting our fear of failure or concerns about things over which we have not control to stop us from taking the lead. So nice to hear from you….come again! ~Dawn

  3. I absolutely agree with this! Decisiveness is one of the key characteristics of leadership along with the ability to act. No one ever has all of the answers, if I have to walk you through a task step by step then you better be a junior person that has never done this before, or you won’t last long working for me. I can’t stand it. I want intelligent, independent people around me – this goes for at home too. Yes we can collaborate on ideas – but that means you come to me with an idea you want to kick around before implementing. Not that you come to me because you have no idea how to proceed and want me to tell you Step 1.

    • I love your example, Daria. It really drives home exactly the point I was making. You and I are cut from the same cloth. It is all about taking ownership of an assignment from end to end. If someone needs an instruction manual for every assignment, they will never be real leaders whether they have the title or not! I too am ripe for idea collaboration but at some point someone has to take it and give it life, come what may! I also don’t want people to try to guess what I want and then try to sell it to me. I’ve always wanted fresh thinking that was doable….and then make it so! Thanks, Daria. This was great! ~Dawn

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