Dr Wanda Wallace discusses our inherently contradictory expectations of managers, and how they can meet them

Great managers have to balance many competing behaviours, characteristics and demands. Chief among these is the need for a healthy balance between appearing vulnerable and being confident – especially with those who report to them.

Often we believe saying we do not know something is a sign of weakness – even if we empirically know it is not. We all know being confident is critical for getting people to follow you. If you don’t look and sound sure of your decisions, people will rightly hesitate to jump on board.  

But the dark side of every strength is just as important as the strength itself. Every strength can be overdone, confidence included. When a person, in a formal or informal leadership role, appears overly confident, people react negatively. They begin to second-guess motives, particularly self-interests. And that erodes trust.  

On the other hand, the humble, servant leader has been the subject of much leadership advice and many books. In other words, we tend to value leaders who can show vulnerability. That means being able to say ‘I don’t know’, to ask ‘dumb questions’ and to admit mistakes.

However, we don’t want leaders to wallow in self-pity. We don’t want to hear: ‘I made a mistake; that’s such a disaster; how could I be so stupid; this is terrible.’ Instead we want a calm acceptance of the mistake. In effect, we want confidence and vulnerability. We want to hear: ‘I got that wrong, and here’s what we/I did to fix it’ or: ‘Here’s what I/we learned in the process.’  

We want a leader who can say:

  • ‘I don’t know’ or ‘we don’t know yet’; and

  • ‘I am confident in our ability to figure it out, in the team’s analytical capability, in our ability to choose a wise next step, and/or in my ability to reach a timely decision with the information that is available’; or

  • ‘I was wrong about X and corrected course.’

Three leaders I interviewed on my radio programme Out of the Comfort Zone gave great examples of how to do this effectively.

Jim Kinsella, a tech entrepreneur who has founded and managed many companies, says there is never a reason not to admit that you don’t know something. It empowers your team. You should sit with a software engineer, say openly that you don’t know his world but that you are interested. Asking them to show you what they do every day, where the road blocks are and what makes life easy or hard is enormously satisfying for that engineer. Here, Jim is showing a good balance of vulnerability (‘I don’t know’ and ‘what you do matters to our success’) and confidence (‘it’s ok that I don’t know because you do – so teach me what’s critical to our success’).  

Another example is my friend John Murphey, former CEO at Bell Helicopter. John wasn’t an engineer and the engineering decisions were critical to the company’s future. So he “asked a lot of dumb questions… and sometimes those dumb questions turned out to be pretty smart after all”. He says a leader should never be afraid to say ‘I don’t know’, and to learn.

Likewise, Marc Howze at John Deere says when he took over a role and his team knew the details far better than he did, it was critical for him not to fake knowledge everyone knew he didn’t have. Instead, he talked quite candidly to one team member. He told him: ‘I know you wanted the job, but I have it. We can succeed together. I need you to get on board and help or we have to find another role for you.’ Marc also says the worst mistake he sees people make is trying to prove they deserve the job. Once you get the job, he says, stop trying to prove the decision was valid and get on with doing the job.

It’s a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, there is a need to project confidence, particularly when the information is not available, there is a lot at risk and the way forward is unclear. Equally, a leader needs to be able to learn with the team, to admit their mistakes and move forward, to permit the team to learn from mistakes and to be human.  

Dr Wanda Wallace is an executive coach and trainer, and CEO and president of Leadership Forum Inc