People look to leaders to fix organizational problems; a leader who fails to resolve a problem quickly may be labelled weak or ineffectual. However, it isn’t in anyone’s best interest for a leader to start fixing things when the way ahead isn’t clear. How does a leader say, “I don’t know what to do next,” without seeming indecisive?
Leaders are faced daily with problems to be solved. Many of these problems involve clear problem definitions and known solutions that have worked reliably in the past. The leader can easily step in, restore order, and inspire confidence in her leadership. Problem solved. Everyone is happy.
In other instances, it may not be easy to clearly state the problem or apply a known solution. In these situations, the people and the leader must pause to learn together before a way forward emerges. Fearful of being labelled weak or ineffective, leaders sometimes feel pressured to pretend they know more than they do, and this can lead to premature action. Premature action may limit future options, and this can be damaging to the congregation.
Consider these seven ways to inspire confidence in your leadership while also acknowledging that you don’t know how to fix the problem-yet:
- Claim what is known about the situation. Don’t make the mistake of waiting to communicate until the situation grows clearer. You may not have a clear problem definition or a known solution, but you can acknowledge the symptoms and the impact that the problem is having on people. “Attendance at the 10:00 service is down twenty percent since last year. There is a noticeable decrease in our worship energy which has many of us worried.” Acknowledging that a problem exists and telling people what you do know reassures people that you are leading.
- Express deep interest and care. Sometimes, leaders try to look non-anxious but end up appearing un-caring or indifferent. As if whatever happens next is just fine. The leader must convey a deep investment in both the people and the problem. “You should know that the staff team, governing board and I are all exploring this. I care deeply about our shared worship life and I am committed to taking action steps as soon as we feel confident in our next steps.” People respect the leader who says, “I really don’t know the answer, but I’m willing to stand here with you in the anxiety of our mutual not-knowing.”
- Be clear about what you won’t do. You may not know what should happen next, but you probably know what is “off the table.” What won’t be considered? Those things that are inconsistent with the identity or values of the congregation. Tell people where those boundaries lie—what you won’t do in pursuit of an easy solution. “Rest assured that any steps we take will not compromise our commitment to musical excellence.”
- Name the competing values. Big problems always involve a tension between values. Competing preferences that are not easily reconciled. “We want to provide multiple worship options to meet the needs of our community, but we also value the unity of our worship experience. We like all being together in one space on Sunday mornings.” You can help people understand the complexity of the issue when you name the values in tension. At the same time, you are letting them know that you understand them.
- Tell a story. People love stories. Stories convey deep truths that might otherwise be difficult to convey. Tell the congregation one of their own stories about a time like this one, when the way forward wasn’t clear. Help them see how watching and learning was the best thing to do, then and now. Tell them a story from your own leadership journey that illustrates the importance of waiting for right timing. Select a biblical story that speaks to the current dilemma and invite people to reflect on how the biblical story informs their story.
- Ask good questions. Good questions will inspire confidence in your leadership. In Engaging Emergence, author and consultant Peggy Holman frames numerous possibility-oriented questions that can help an organization clarify what is emerging out of a leadership challenge. Here are some of the most poignant:
- What do we wish to conserve?
- What do we want more of?
- What keeps us going?
- What guides us when we don’t know?
- What question, if asked and answered, would make a difference in this situation?
- What can we do together what none of us could do alone?
- How do we steward what is arising?
- Given what has happened, what is possible next?
- Invite people to adopt a stance of wonder. Sometimes wondering is an act of will. We must decide not to be captured by anxiety, to set aside our compulsion for knowing, advocating, and striving. Instead, we embrace not knowing what will happen next. We attend to all that is arising, and we yield to the disruption that the problem has introduced. In this state of active wonder, we are more open to learning, to Divine guidance and to the emergence of new possibilities.
Saying, “I don’t know” is not a sign of weakness in a leader. It is an honest acknowledgment that more learning is required before action can be taken. Your leadership can inspire confidence while also creating space for not knowing. The next time you face an uncertain course of action, consider admitting “I don’t know”—but do it with confidence.
Susan Beaumont is a consultant, coach and spiritual director. Susan is a practical contemplative. She works at the intersection of organizational health and spiritual guidance. Specializing in the unique dynamics of large congregations, Susan’s work focuses on staff team dynamics, board development and leadership in times of transition. Rev. Beaumont is the author of How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going and Inside the Large Congregation and co-author of When Moses Meets Aaron.