2 - Minute Topics

Periodically, NAHLP will provide short articles on leadership topics. This is the first in the series.

Not Knowing the Answer

There are several differences between a new leader and a seasoned leader. Additionally, there are similar differences between a bad leader and a good leader. This 2-Minute Topic addresses the myth that leaders must know everything.

Thinking back to the Industrial Revolution, it was imperative that the leader know everything. Across the organization, the leader was expected to be able to move from department to department and from hierarchical level to level. If someone did not show up for work and their role was critical, the leader was required to complete that person’s duties until the employee returns or, if necessary, a suitable replacement is found.

In today’s world of healthcare, it is impossible to have a leader move from department to department. Imagine the CEO of a large urban hospital trying to fill in for a surgeon or a radiologist, or a multitude of positions for that matter. Today’s leaders must ultimately rely on their teams to effectively fulfill the mission and vision of the organization.

It is one thing to have the technical skills and experience to be able to fill in for subordinates, but it is an entirely different situation when the leader is asked questions about policies or processes. The new, and even bad, leader feels as if they need to have an answer for everything. This stems from an array of issues, but chief among them is the fear that they will look weak and ultimately replaced.

Fear is an incredibly powerful emotion, and it often causes people to make immediate decisions. This kneejerk reaction will undoubtedly spell trouble for the entire organization. Equally as bad as the instant decision, is the leader who feels cornered or on the spot. They feel so pressured to have an answer that they will make one up.

In healthcare, creating a fallacious answer can not only be dangerous for the organization (e.g., regulatory oversight), it can also be dangerous to both staff and patients. When this occurs, the problem(s) created normally snowballs as one erroneous decision may ripple across the entire organization.

In the end, when faced with an unknown question, the good leader states they do not know the answer and then either seeks out the answer or refers the person to someone who does know. In either situation, it is imperative that the leader follow up with the individual who posed the initial question. If you are in the process of obtaining an answer, keep the individual informed that you are actively working towards an answer.

Not following up with the individual can erroneously result in a feeling of being ignored and/or not valued. If the individual is an employee, this can negatively impact morale. If the individual is a patient or family member, this might cause undue stress which may complicate care delivery and recovery.

In summary, it is okay to not know the answer to everything. In fact, telling a person you do not know the answer, and then following up until an answer is given, has been shown to increase trust in the leader and his/her abilities.


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