At one time or another, I’m sure you have heard the well-traveled leadership lesson called “A Short Course in Human Relations” (in case you haven’t , here’s a good little video reminder), which starts with the Six Most Important Words (“I admit I made a mistake”), and ended with the One Most Important Word (“we”).
It’s well traveled because despite its contrivance, there are some great lessons there.
However, it never stuck in my mind as much, or ultimately became as important to my leadership learning, as a little addition to that list I heard about 22 years ago.
It was one of the first meetings I had with my new boss at that time. He was asking me a question about something, and truthfully, I can’t even remember what it was. I just remember answering in a way that clearly indicated I wasn’t very sure I had the right answer. I’m sure you all know what I mean – like a Jeopardy contestant answering in the form of a question.
I tried to answer it, even though I wasn’t very confident, because in a subconscious way I thought that I was expected to have the answer. I had this mindset that blurting out “I don’t know” would be a very bad thing – a way of not measuring up.
My boss clearly heard the doubt, and correctly challenged me on it. “Are you SURE about that”, he asked. “Absolutely, positively, SURE??”. I stammered and couldn’t get anything out of my mouth. This time, he replied with an even more pointed question. “Are you willing to bet a year’s salary on that answer???”
Bummer. I was busted.
And here’s where the addition to the “Short Course in Human Relations” came in. My boss now became a teacher. He said, “My boy, it’s not a crime to not know the answer – you just need to say the seven most important words” –
“I don’t know, but I’ll find out”
Yes, it was OK – I didn’t need to know everything, BUT…..
I needed to at least have the ability (and desire) to find the answers if I didn’t know them off the top of my head.
That was a critical lesson for me, one that I still think about nearly every day. Because now, I’m typically on the other side of those questions, asking people for answers. And if I’m setting expectations correctly, in that I don’t need everyone to have total knowledge, that I don’t need to have people guess at things, and my teammates feel comfortable with me, and ultimately TRUST me, when I ask them a question they cannot answer I too will hear those seven words.
And quickly thereafter I will get my answer.
Conversely, I need to keep saying those seven words too – yes, even bosses don’t know everything. I can’t pretend to, even when those old feelings creep into my head. It takes a little courage to admit it. But I must.
All leaders must.
It’s candor with a promise attached – and a promise that gets fulfilled much more easily with right expectations in place. A pretty darn good combination, for just seven little words.
Try adding them to your leadership toolbox, and see how important they become for you.