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What does it take to speak as a leader? The usual answers I get to this question include: “Be confident!” “Set the vision and direction and help others rally behind it.” “Define and convey clear messages every time you speak.”

Yet a few years ago I started hearing a new reply from clients: “Leaders must be willing to say ‘I don’t know!’”

Why? Because what we expect of our leaders is continually evolving. The days of the command-and-control leader guiding a company from the podium are gone. Today, leaders must be capable of not telling but inspiring bright, independent employees to follow. To do this they must communicate in a way that is genuine and credible. One of the easiest ways to do this is for leaders to admit to what they don’t know.

A short disclaimer: There are some things that leaders are expected to know. For example, a CFO on a quarterly analyst call had better know what the earnings per share were—or he will soon lose his audience. But for everything else, keep in mind these points:

Say “I don’t know” comfortably

Many managers and executives have been told that they are always on stage and that they must always be playing a leadership role. This (valid) belief can cause them to feel uncomfortable when they are forced to admit they don’t have information or are unable to answer to a difficult question. The result is that while they may say, “I don’t know,” their discomfort in doing so is obvious.

The key is to say it with confidence. Leaders don’t shy away from the “I don’t know” and instead come clean with confidence and even pride! This confidence is drawn from the knowledge that a leader’s job is not to have all the answers, but rather to lead their team or organization in the pursuit of those answers.

Say “I don’t know” with strength

There is an important distinction between being willing to admit what you don’t know and using words that undercuts the confidence of others. Self-deprecation, admissions of discomfort and other “mincing modifiers” are highly detrimental to how audiences perceive leaders. Consider the following two sentences:

[Weak] “I’m just thinking this could be an exciting launch for us. Now, I don’t know how many units we will sell in the first six months and I’m sorry I don’t have that, I wish I did. But I think we can grab the lead in market share. It might help to increase our marketing spend?”

[Strong] “I’m excited about the launch of this new product. Now, I don’t know how many units we will sell in the first six months. But what I do know is that we are well-positioned to grab the lead in market share if we make this investment in marketing.”

Both sentences are substantively the same but in the latter the speaker acknowledges what he or she doesn’t know while avoiding any unnecessary mincing modifiers.

Use “I don’t know” to encourage others to do some hard thinking

Some years ago, I was coaching a partner at an accounting firm whose staff complained of “broken commitments and promises.” I listened in to a few of her town halls and noticed a pattern—when pressed for details on how the firm would turn a strategy into action she rushed to give detailed responses.

For example, when asked how the firm would follow through on its commitment to providing mentorship to young associates she started sharing ideas that she later confessed were “half-baked” and “created to try to give a good answer.” When pressed as to why she had done this she replied, “I just felt I had to prove we were serious about getting this done, but now I’ve backed us into a corner on this one because we aren’t sure where to get started or even if we’re going to hit the mark with our mentoring program.”

Three months later, at her next town hall, a member of her team raised the issue and asked, “When are you going to get this rolling?” She paused and replied, “You’re right, we haven’t done anything yet, and I apologize for that. The reality is we know that we need to take some steps, but we don’t know what to do yet. I say that because we haven’t spoken to you and your colleagues…so rather than me and the partners cooking something up, we’d like to hear from you about what should go into this program before we get rolling. So if you don’t mind I’ll start by asking you right now…”

The result:  The junior staff began shaping the program they were looking for. Leaders recognize that not providing or proscribing the answers actually creates engagement from listeners whom they can challenge to chart the path.

Turn “I don’t know” into a next step

Simply ending at “I don’t know” is a recipe for failure. It can suck the energy out of an audience who had been looking to a leader for answers or direction. That’s why you can follow “I don’t know” with a question or a call to action.

Jeff was a mining general manager whose mine was just acquired by a global company. He convened a town hall with the staff. After a short preamble where he shared what he knew, he opened the floor to questions. A manager asked the first question,

“Will the new owners make changes to our mine leadership team?” Jeff paused and replied, “The short answer is, I don’t know. What I do know is that they will be meeting with our team in two weeks and we should be proactive in laying out what we believe is required to realize the mine’s potential. This will allow us to show them not only the best path forward but also that we are the right leaders for this operation.” By moving to a next step, Jeff was able to use his admission to galvanize others.

To sum up, real leaders don’t always have an answer to every question. By saying “I don’t know,” you’re able to build credibility and instill confidence when your are sure about something. Where can you start? Well, I don’t know—but I’m sure if you put your mind to it you’ll find some opportunities.

Bart Egnal is president and CEO of The Humphrey Group, which teaches people to communicate as inspiring leaders and express ideas that move others to action. The company has offices in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary and Mexico City, and serves clients around the world.

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How comfortable are you saying “I don’t know” as a leader? Share your thoughts using the comments section below.

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