Leadership ≠ All Knowing

Leaders frequently harbor the notion that they are expected to know more than they do.  In the extreme case, a leader feels that she is expected to know everything.  The real problem occurs when a leader is unable- or simply refuses- to recognize that this attitude has overcome her, therefore putting no measures in place to control it.  At one time I believed, anecdotally, that this pitfall more commonly befell young and inexperienced leaders.  After additional observation, I suggest that all leaders fall prey to the self-imposed expectation that we must be subject matter experts in all domains within the scope of our responsibility if we are to be effective leaders.

Think back to a time when you were leading a team and faced with a complex decision.  Did you feel a sense of internal dissonance when you subconsciously accepted that collecting and considering other evidence and viewpoints would strengthen the solution, but chose to resist the urge to explore the issue further out of fear that doing so would signal your incompetence?

Logically, we understand that no one can know it all.  The expectation is wildly unreasonable.

This mistake is especially toxic in the context of healthcare leadership because the body of clinical and functional knowledge is far too vast and specialized for any one person to command it all. Healthcare leaders intuitively understand this, yet social pressure prevails and discourages leaders from remaining honest with themselves and their teams about their limitations.

There are several troubling effects when leaders make this mistake:

  • Leaders are discouraged from examining ideas from informed people around him- peers, subordinates, and mentors alike.  When the problem demands robust collaboration, this mistake can be crippling.
  • We assume greater risk in every decision by refusing to evaluate the full range of available evidence.
  • Leaders fall prey to a variety of biases by resisting diverging points of view.
  • Our subordinates are not able to contribute to the limit of their potential, discouraging future contribution and blunting enthusiasm.

This mistake is so easy to make, and most of us frequently suffer from pretending to be all knowing.  Avoiding this pitfall requires an impressive degree of self-awareness.  Leaders must be in-tune with their personality attributes and problem solving preferences to recognize circumstances when she may be tempted to avoid seeking external information.  It’s powerful if a leader can detect the internal dissonance that occurs and use this feeling as the trigger to control against the pitfall.  However, few of us possess that level of awareness and self-control, so leaders should put process in place to manage their behavior.  I suggest that leaders create the habit of seeking input from 3 people before making significant decisions.  Since soliciting input simply is now part of a normal process, the leader can avoid the embarrassment that comes from signaling that he doesn’t have all the answers.