Leaders can be most effective when they model the capacity to reflect and ask questions, rather than having all the answers.
In our conventional view of ‘strong’ leadership, we tend to assume that the leader is the one with the plan – the vision, the strategy, the answers. We look to leaders for direction and decision-making, and no doubt, many of us internalise this notion of leadership when we become leaders ourselves. We assume that others are looking to us for answers, and feel pressure to have those answers readily to hand, no matter the complexity of the situation.
It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that leaders – and not just those new to the role – often feel they’re falling short of this ideal; indeed, imposter syndrome is now believed to be something that is experienced by a majority of people at some point in their working lives.
Of course, as has now been so clearly demonstrated in the COVID-19 crisis, there are plenty of times when leaders simply don’t have the answers, so it’s perhaps timely to consider a different view of leadership, wherein openness and vulnerability are a source of strength, not a sign of weakness.
Trust and vulnerability
In her extensive and influential work on leadership, Viviane Robinson advocates for the importance of trusting relationships in the work of effective school leaders. Trust, she argues, is essential if leaders are to embark on the difficult and important conversations that lead to meaningful change. Importantly, leaders must work at building trust within those conversations by modeling an open, inquiring mindset and a comfort with vulnerability. When leaders acknowledge the complexity of an issue, or the lack of immediate answers, they provide the psychological safety for others to ask their own questions, to inquire into their own practice and together find ways forward.
Of course, as Robinson acknowledges, it is equally important that leaders are perceived to be competent and capable; as we have seen in the recent crisis, the role of a leader to provide a sense of certainty amid uncertainty cannot be underestimated. The challenge for leaders is to integrate the work of building trusting relationships with the ‘substantive’ work of improving outcomes.
Here, we might turn to the idea of ‘confident vulnerability’, which Paul Freeman expands on in a recent blog. Acknowledging the tension that leaders must navigate between being ‘in control’ and being ‘open to learning’, Freeman suggests that when leaders model the behaviours they hope to see in their staff – to continuously reflect on practice, seek out feedback and take risks to improve – they earn the trust of staff and create an environment where continuous learning is the norm.
In a climate of uncertainty, we have little choice but to be open to learning if we are to adapt to the challenges that confront us. As leaders, we can instil in others the confidence to be vulnerable, by allowing ourselves to sit with the questions, rather than immediately reach for the answer.