Great Leaders Don’t Have to Know All the Answers

Guest post by Robert S. Kaplan

Everyone thinks successful leaders always know what to say and the right course to take. They don’t. But they do know the right questions to ask.

Many people believe that great leaders are simply blessed with a knack for having the right answers. They have a natural instinct for leadership because they were born with superior talents, skills, insight and charisma. These executives belong to a rarefied species of people who are able to avoid periods of doubt and confusion and are somehow able to avoid significant setbacks. In short, these people aren’t like the rest of us.

While this image may be appealing, the fact is that the reality is far more complicated.

In my experience, almost without exception, successful leaders go through stretches of time when they do feel confused, discouraged and unsure of themselves. They wonder why other executives seem to have an easier time doing their jobs. They grasp for answers and feel fundamentally alone, even as they project an air of confidence.

The difference between successful and less successful leaders depends in large part on how they deal with these periods of self-doubt. The trick lies not in avoiding these rough patches (you won’t); it lies in learning to step back, diagnose, regroup and move forward.

Ninety percent of the battle is learning to take the time to ask the right questions

Ninety percent of the battle is learning to take the time to ask the right questions, critical questions that help you frame key issues, diagnose problems and develop action plans for yourself and your organization. That’s how you work through adversity and get yourself and your company back on track.

There is nothing magical or overly sophisticated about these questions. They’re the questions that most of us know we should be asking, but somehow fail to ask in leading our organizations. They help you focus you on a road-map for what you need to do rather than some nebulous unrealistic standard of how “natural leaders” are supposed to behave.

  • What is my vision for the organization? What are our critical distinctive competencies and how will we build on these to serve our customers and make a positive impact on our constituencies?
  • What are our top 3 to 5 priorities to achieve this vision? What are the most critical tasks we must do extremely well to achieve our aspirations?
  • Do I match my time with these top 3 to 5 priorities? Do I encourage my team to do the same? Why or why not?
  • Based on the vision and priorities, do I coach my people?
  • Do I get coaching? How should I get coaching?
  • Do I look at my enterprise with a clean sheet of paper? Do we have the right people, incentives, organization, and culture to achieve our goals?
  • Do I act as a role model? Or, do I say one thing and do another? If so, why?
  • Do I take time to reflect on these issues? Do I create opportunities for my people to reflect on these issues?
  • Do I ask questions, seek advice and engage my subordinates in these questions? If not, why not?

As a leader, you don’t need to have all the answers or have superhuman traits. Instead you need to focus on asking the right questions, engaging your team and focusing on what you’re actually doing. All great leaders have moments of doubt and go through periods of struggle. Focus on having the wisdom to ask the right questions of yourself and others, and have the courage to act on what you learn.

What are your questions? Tweet me at @Robskaplan






Robert S. Kaplan


Robert Steven Kaplan has served as the thirteenth president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, Texas since September 8, 2015. He represents the Eleventh Federal Reserve District on the Federal Open Market Committee in the formulation of U.S. monetary policy and oversees the 1,200 employees of the Dallas Fed. Kaplan was previously the Martin Marshall Professor of Management Practice and a Senior Associate Dean at Harvard Business School.

Rob is the author of What You Were Really Meant To Do,  What to Ask the Person in the Mirror: Critical Questions for Becoming a More Effective Leader and “What You Really Need to Lead – The Power of Thinking and Acting Like an Owner”   You can connect with Rob on Twitter:  @Robskaplan




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