Busting common leadership myths: ‘Good leaders have all the answers’

In a recent piece for Forbes, Ekaterina Walter took a critical look at several buzz phrases often heard within the corporate world with the goal of determining how true they really are.

The image of the leader as an all-knowing force who can answer any question and always knows how to guide the company in the right direction is frequently propagated in the media – and, to some extent, within firms themselves. That said, leaders who think they have all the answers often find themselves at the helms of less successful teams than those who cultivate a more group-driven approach.

“The best leaders have a clear understanding of their own limitations,” wrote Walter. “They know that success is a team sport.”

Why, then, do so many people in executive positions struggle to admit they need others’ input?

“The stereotype of the infallible executive persona, and the deeply held belief that we must continually project an aura of confidence and competence, makes it extraordinarily difficult for some leaders to just say, ‘I don’t know,'” wrote Scott Weiss in an article for TLNT earlier this year.

Despite executives’ common desire to save face by appearing omniscient, letting a few cracks show may actually be helpful for a leader’s image, according to two studies cited by Weiss. Specifically, Zakary Tormala of the Stanford University Graduate School of Business found that uncertainty “draws people in” more than complete confidence, while Jim Collins’ five-year Good to Great study identified personal humility as one of the most critical components of a great leader.

But showing vulnerability is bad… right?

Leaders who ascribe to the mindset of answering questions rather than asking them might be married to this attitude in part due to a desire not to appear weak. However, there’s a distinct difference between seeming weak and seeming accessible. After all, there’s nothing more intimidating than perfection, and that doesn’t bode well for leaders who need to communicate with other executives and members of the workforce.

Indeed, Weiss noted, leaders who try to give the impression that they have all the answers “are closed to growth, innovation and change. They present themselves as unteachable and unreachable and fail to make authentic emotional connections.”

In contrast, executives who display personal vulnerability or candidly acknowledge shortcomings within their companies may end up appearing more emotionally accessible to employees, inspiring them to band together and drive positive change.

The Rometty approach

Last month, we highlighted the example of IBM CEO Virginia “Ginni” Rometty, who responded to her company’s lackluster revenue earlier this year with a galvanizing video address to her entire workforce, which amounted to 434,000 employees in countries across the globe. Judith E. Glaser, CEO of Benchmark Communications and the chairman of The Creating WE Institute, lauded Rometty’s “clear, direct, provocative language” in a piece for the Harvard Business Review Blog Network.

Indeed, rather than trying to pretend she had all the answers, Rometty acknowledged her company’s shortcomings and asked her employees for help. As well as calling upon workers to step up, she also presented an avenue for they themselves to seek assistance, encouraging them to reach out to supervisors with questions, concerns or suggestions – an approach that lines up well with the points Weiss makes for TLNT.

“When we drop the mask, stop trying to be the person we think we’re expected to be and simply become the person we are, we open doors, making room for others and the solutions they may have,” Weiss wrote.

The verdict

Driving success is a collaborative effort, and leaders who present themselves as human rather than perfect engender empathy among employees that often translates into greater productivity and increased gains. Perpetuating the myth of having all the answers sets leaders apart from others in a negative way, squelching the spirit of collaboration that is often a key component of good performance. C-level professionals who cling too tightly to the idea of appearing omnipotent run the risk of turning off their workforce and limiting their future career options.

That said, leaders shouldn’t go overboard when it comes to showing their vulnerability. Executives should display humanness (doubt, disappointment, simply saying “I don’t know”) while still ultimately giving the impression that they are competent. Making employees privy to too many of their concerns and uncertainties might inspire unease, so it is necessary to strike a balance.

About Caldwell Partners

Caldwell Partners is a leading international provider of executive search and has been for more than 40 years. As one of the world’s most trusted advisors in executive search, the firm has a sterling reputation built on successful searches for boards, chief and senior executives, and selected functional experts. With offices and partners across North America and in London, the firm takes pride in delivering an unmatched level of service and expertise to its clients.

Back to Insights

Stay on top of the latest intel across multiple industries and continents.