Where a leader’s answers come from

Stan Soderstrom | May 05, 2021

Stan Soderstrom

What happens when a leader doesn’t have all the answers? It’s not exactly a trick question — but it also doesn’t have a single, simple answer.  

In fact, that’s the point: Leaders are human, and no human has all the answers. What matters is how the flow of information is structured among the people you lead.

We sometimes have an unrealistic image of who a leader is and what he or she does. It can be comforting to envision a wise figure sitting at the mountaintop — or a grand hero rushing in to sweep away danger and complication.

In reality, leadership usually isn’t about conquering problems but making decisions based on the circumstances before us. All of which brings us back to the flow of information — the issue of where it comes from and how it reaches decision-makers.

I’ve learned that leaders need to take the time to get as much information as they can. And to get it, they need to be open to the input of others.

But for the information to be of any quality, a structure — and a culture — must be in place to allow for such time and input. Otherwise, each decision a leader makes can seem like a quick guess in the middle of a crisis, and input can seem like a dart thrown at a board by whoever passes by.

This is one good reason why boards, committees and other kinds of work groups are created. Ideally, each group has a specific purpose or area of focus. And each is populated with members whose expertise is suited to that purpose. But even with a common purpose, work groups should be composed of people who bring different ideas, perspectives and experiences. If everyone on a committee has the same background and opinion, a “committee of one” would get the job done as easily as a larger group. That’s not the purpose of a team where everyone’s contributions come together in one solution.

If you’ve done your job as a leader, diversity supports a common goal. I’ve talked before about casting a vision, which is less a matter of knowing all the answers than defining an intended outcome. When the vision remains consistent, you can adjust tactics when conditions change. Or even when things don’t go quite right. You can acknowledge the need for new facts, new information, new approaches.

Ultimately, you maintain the kind of stability that helps people see how the circumstance, not the vision, has shifted. Through it all, you give confidence to the people around you while they give you the input you need.


*Stan D. Soderstrom is the executive director of Kiwanis International and the Kiwanis Children’s Fund. His background includes global and community-based work in the public and private sectors.


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