The other day I went for a walk with a friend, who also happened to have spent a good deal of her professional life walking in the shoes of the leader. We were talking about an organization she'd headed up for more than a dozen years, a multifaceted one that among its many complexities had a workforce of over one thousand people, spread across the far reaches of the country. She was describing the challenges of guiding all those people, working to ensure not only that they functioned as a team, but that their work delivered upon their collective mission and with excellence. For a long time, it was a struggle. Until one day change came - not to the organization, but to her understanding as a leader. "I found that it was better when I didn't know everything," she said. It's one of the wisest and most essential epiphanies a leader can have. It's also the very insight most fight. Knowing why they do is important. More important? Realizing that the luxury of having the time to gradually accept this truth is no more.
Let's be clear: Leadership in any space, and in any time is hard. In an uncertain landscape it's exponentially harder. The data proves this out. Forgetting the added uncertainty of a pandemic for a moment, consider a pre-pandemic study by advisory firm PwC of nearly 2,000 leaders across sectors and across the globe. The study revealed that 4 out of 5 leaders considered the road before them in 2017, and their ability to guide their teams down that road, to be, in a word: "unpredictable." The response wasn't glib or unspecific. On virtually every front - from the ability to recruit talent, to the knowledge of how to handle rapid changes in technological, all the way down to their capacity to predict not just the bottom line, but indeed where revenues would even come from, leaders repeated the word. Unpredictable. It was a stunning admission. And that was before Covid came to town.
Over the past year and a half, the data hasn't gotten any better. In their newly released 2021 CEO Leadership Report, global leadership consulting firm DDI found that, when tested by crisis, the confidence of 368 CEOs in their own ability to lead had dropped a further 20%. Why? The answer is axiomatic, even if hard to accept, and it has two parts.
The first, is that it is impossible for any leader to know the full spectrum of the ins and outs of every job and every team member who contributes to an organization, something that has been true for a long, long time, not just in the uncertain last two years. And yet, that hasn't stopped leaders from deluding themselves that somehow they can know it all or worse, must. Which brings us to the second part about why leaders feel less than confident, and that's our hero problem when it comes to leadership. Societally, we have built a mythology around the leader, and a key part of that myth is the idea of leader-as-hero, the protector, the rescuer, the deliverer who embodies all of leadership and simply commands the rest of us to follow their directives. This myth had its problems in the past. It soured morale whenever leaders were less than heroic. It often subdued efficiency and the ability of an organization innovate or adapt as it waited for the answers to come from one person in the corner office. But the unpredictability leaders across the landscape now must contend with brings use face-to-face with that mythology - and a choice.
The choice is between being the leader or instead, taking the lead to cultivate a culture of leadership. We have long equated the leader with leadership in total. But leadership is an undertaking that calls on the many to contribute, indeed to lead, each in their own way, every single day, in every single action by every single team member. What then is the leader's job? To create and nurture the environment in which that dynamic can flourish, something my friend said it took her too long to understand and embrace.
On our walk, she shared what that lesson boiled down to. "I found that it was better when I didn't know everything." She didn't go on to catalog all the things she did after that thought, things she and her cadre of 999 other leaders figured out together. She simply shared her beginning - her first and most important step towards seeing effective leadership as necessarily cultural, and her real responsibility to ensure that culture of leadership flourish. The details were secondary, and came far easier once she allowed that thought to guide her. It's a thought more leaders would be wise to have, and one that put off may prove their reckoning.