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In a meeting last year, CEO Jan W. found herself in an awkward situation. “My whole sales staff was talking and talking about an account that they thought was critical,” she says. “I didn’t know anything about the account, and I was too embarrassed to admit it.”
When we accept leadership roles, “I don’t understand” or “What are you talking about?” can prove hard words to say. We fear that if we admit our ignorance, people will assume that we’re disconnected, weak leaders.
At such times, it’s tempting to fake it, or to listen and hope that what we hear will fill in the gaps in our knowledge. Most often, that’s a mistake. Admitting a lack of knowledge actually makes you look stronger in your team’s eyes, not weaker … if you do it in the right way:
Ask for clarification. Say, “I need to be brought up to speed on this issue.”
Don’t direct blame elsewhere by saying, “Why didn’t anybody bring this to my attention before?” Instead, adopt a collaborative tone, stressing that reviewing the issue will help everyone. In fact, it will.
Ask for a formal briefing, with documentation, in a follow-up meeting.
Benefit: When you take the lead in acquiring key knowledge, other people will follow suit. You gain respect as an open, growth-oriented leader who is not afraid to ask.
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