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Hugh Arnold is adjunct professor and former dean at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.
Hugh Arnold is adjunct professor and former dean at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

LEADERSHIP LAB

If you're a leader with all the answers, that means you don't listen to your staff Add to ...

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

Many popular stereotypes of effective leaders paint a picture of a boss who has all the answers and always knows exactly what to do. Whether it’s Dr. Gregory House on House, Jack Bauer in 24 or the real-life Donald Trump on The Apprentice, we’re often left with the impression that in order to succeed as “the boss,” we must always have all the answers to any question, issue or challenge that may confront us or our team.

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We need to remind ourselves that these stereotypes are often based on either fictional (as with Gregory House and Jack Bauer) or scripted characters (as with Donald Trump). In reality, one of the biggest mistakes you can make as a boss is to come across as if you have all the answers.

People today aren’t looking to their leaders to have all the answers. What they are looking for is a boss who is genuine and candid, who values the members of his or her team, respects their ideas and expertise, and who is willing to listen to suggestions before deciding on a new direction or course of action.

A leader who comes in to a new organization or a new role saying “I have all the answers” is sending a powerful message to his or her team that:

– I’m smarter than all of you;

– Even though you may have deep knowledge and expertise, I don’t need to waste my precious time seeking out your ideas;

– I don’t need your help;

– All I really need from you is to put your heads down and do what I tell you.

That’s a message that’s virtually guaranteed to generate alienation and disengagement – just the opposite of what’s needed for any team or organization to succeed today.

Successful leadership is about motivating people to do things that they otherwise wouldn’t have done. In order to accomplish that, a leader needs first to paint a picture of a future that the majority of people feel excited about and are willing to commit to working toward. Then the leader needs to lay out a process that the team will follow to allow that vision to be accomplished. Finally, the leader needs to get people aligned in the proper roles so that they can each contribute in their own way to the attainment of their shared goal.

People won’t buy in to a vision that’s been imposed on them. Nor will they go the extra mile attempting to implement a plan for which they don’t feel any sense of personal ownership and that doesn’t incorporate their own knowledge, experience and expertise.

Of course, there are some circumstances where people are looking to their leaders for immediate answers and for clear decisive action. When our lives or livelihoods are under imminent threat, we don’t want planning meetings, we want immediate, unambiguous direction. If our business is on the verge of bankruptcy, or we are an army unit under enemy fire, we don’t want our leader to call a meeting to discuss options.

But once the immediate threat has been addressed, our fundamental need to feel valued, to contribute our ideas, and to feel a sense of personal ownership and responsibility for what we’re doing take over again.

Effective leaders understand the difference between “coming in with the answer” and “coming in with a plan for how we’re going to figure out the answers together.”

People do look to their leaders to provide guidance and direction – that’s what leadership is all about. But leadership is also all about winning the hearts and minds of people so that they will feel motivated and committed to give 100 per cent to achieving shared goals by implementing plans that they’ve had a voice in shaping.

And that commitment doesn’t come from self-important leaders who believe that they have all the answers. It comes from smart, well-informed, emotionally intelligent leaders who know that their own success is determined ultimately by the insights and efforts of those they are responsible for leading.

Hugh Arnold is adjunct professor and former dean at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management (@rotmanschool), where he teaches leadership in the Rotman MBA (@RotmanMBA) program as well as in a number of the school’s programs for executives.

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