Sometimes you have to unexpectedly lead in an area in which you are not an expert. Maybe you are not even close to an expert. Maybe you have no experience at all. Situations will arise that you are not prepared for and when they do, you are still the leader and it is up to you to steward that role. Take parenting for example, no one really knows how to do it. But, guess what, you have to lead this tiny person into adulthood through unforeseen circumstances. You figure it out, right?
However, most of the time it is other professional adults (some who may be gunning for your job), not children. How will you accomplish this without those people figuring out that you don't know what you're actually doing? There are a few ways to handle this, but what I've seen to be the most effective leadership style is not being afraid of the vulnerability. OWN IT!
You will need a bit of time to get yourself together and make a plan, but mostly you need to leverage the talent you already have in the people around you. Don't be afraid to say, “I'm not quite sure what we should do with this part of it but I know that [Diane] has the skill set to take that on and be successful.” That's leading! Appreciating who is around you, being vulnerable enough to say, “I'm not quite sure about … but what I do know is this...”, and leading your team through the unknown.
Focusing on what you don't know and striving to find the “right” answer or way to do something will create an atmosphere of distrust. When things get stressful, a person will tend to close themselves off from others or work themselves to the point of exhaustion in an effort to appear to have it all together. The whole team notices that and, unless someone is bold enough to face and discuss it, distrust and rumors brew. We must remember that we are often called to lead through something we have no experience with yet. And that is OK! Gather your team, share the situation before you, own that you are not sure about how to walk through it but that you will lead them through it. I have not mastered parenting, but I am learning along the way and becoming better at it all the time. Sometimes I have to talk to my older children in this way to let them know that I do have vulnerabilities but that I own my role as their leader and we will walk through this together. That helps them to believe that they do not always have to have all of the answers to walk through something well. In that way you will grow and your team will grow along with you.
Try these steps when you don't know how to walk your team through a situation:
Get Clarity: Are there questions you can ask, experienced people you can talk to, or resources you could scour to understand the situation more clearly?
Focus on what you DO know: You know you are the leader. You know your team. You know that there will be an outcome on the other end of this.
Decide what the desired outcome is and work towards it: Is it success at all costs, or is it a team that will grow and learn together? When mistakes happen or the result isn't good, will you cast blame, or will you be able to humbly take responsibility because you made the best choices you knew how to at the time? Will you back your team or will you scramble toward self-preservation? None of these are actually wrong, just different, choices one could make … just be sure you think about who you want to be as a leader as you make the choice.
Being secretive and not sharing a major project, change, or situation for too long could create distrust and paralyzing shock at just the time you need your people to step up and offer their loyalty, trust, and most thoughtful, creative work. How will you approach your next difficult situation when you don't have experience in that particular area yet? Here's to walking headlong into the unknown … but hopefully, not alone!