Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes leaders make is to think they have the answers . . . that they are experts . . . because then they quit trying to figure out what they don’t know. That is when leaders get blindsided by the “unknown unknowns” — unexpected developments that never occurred to the leader, and that can totally change an organization’s reality. Basically, to quote a wise colleague, “Once you think you’re an expert, you’re sunk.”
If you are in a position of leadership, there will be plenty of people who will treat you as if you are an expert. They will ask your opinion, turn to you for solutions, and move forward based on what you tell them. In a situation like this, it is easy to start believing that your job is to provide the answers. It’s not. Your job is to ask the right questions . . . to be an explorer, not an expert.
Explorers seek out the unknown, forge new paths, find new connections, and ask “what if” and “why not.” Experts were convinced the world was flat and so quit looking for other possibilities.
Explorers can certainly have expertise — they just recognize that it is something they have, not someone they are. Explorers use what they know as stepping-stones. Their experience is a gateway to new discoveries, not a box to live in. When you are an expert, new information can challenge your credibility. When you are an explorer, new information is simply another piece of the puzzle.
If the expert chair suddenly feels a bit confining, how does one become an explorer? For starters, get out of the chair and try the following:
- Identify your organization’s assumptions and reframe them as one possible reality — then look for others.
- Ask staff throughout the organization what you should be thinking about.
- Talk to a range of people outside your industry, listen to what they are thinking about, and consider how those ideas translate to your organization.
- Think bigger than is reasonable. (i.e., ask someone to name something that is not possible, but would be really cool if it was — that kind of bigger).
- Ask open-ended questions with no pre-conceived notions of the answer.
- Don’t answer/respond/qualify. Just listen, reflect, inquire, and listen some more.
Finally, remember, exploration is a continuous journey. It is not a destination, which once attained provides a comfortable perch from which to dispense expert wisdom. It has ever-changing terrain and new vistas around each bend. It’s about discovery and insight, and yes sometimes stumbling or veering a bit off course. And it’s the only way to get from what we know today to what is possible tomorrow.
The world has plenty of experts. Be an explorer.