Traveler Exploring Map With Compass In Sunny Forest In The MountPerhaps 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.
  • Repeat.

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.

White Space

White SpaceHave you ever looked at a report/newsletter/publication of one type or another and at first glance it looked so overwhelming that you simply put it on the stack . . . you know the one . . . the stack of stuff you’re going to go through when you have time, even though deep down you know that you will never really get to it? Yeah, that one. So what’s the difference between the things that go in the stack and those that you actually read/respond to? My guess is white space. Really! White space makes things more appealing, more approachable, less intimidating. It allows you to breathe. (I’m not making that up . . . it’s a legitimate design philosophy!)

So how much white space is there in your leadership?

Do you come across so bursting at the seams with ideas/plans/stuff that you overwhelm people? Do they put your ideas “in their stack” to deal with once they get through the crisis of the day, but never really get back to it? Are you surprised/frustrated/disappointed by the lack of enthusiasm you receive for what you are sure is an awesome plan? White space.

White space doesn’t mean you dilute the idea, simply that you give it room to breathe . . . to hear what others are thinking about the plan, and how it might impact the other 57 things on their plate at the moment. White space gives focus and importance to the things held within it. White space may mean that you carve out dedicated time to discuss a concept rather than dump it on someone in a drive-by conversation. It may mean that you give people time to ponder and reflect before you ask for their input. White space requires distillation. It’s easier to include every detail rather than boil an idea down to the most important elements. White space requires discipline, and it makes an impact.

And what about you? Do you allow yourself white space? If you’re going full tilt 24/7, when do you have time to learn, to reflect, to renew? How many times have you had a great idea in the shower, or when you were “goofing off” or letting your mind wander. White space. How long has it been since you carved out time for letting your brain breathe? I’m not talking about vegging out in front of the TV or losing several hours to social media. I mean getting outside, or diving headlong into a good book; learning something new or cooking a gourmet meal. The great ideas are in there, just waiting for you to slow down enough for them to unfold.

And all it takes it white space.