“I-don’t-know.” These are three words that most leaders rarely, if ever, dare utter. Why does the admission of “not knowing” feel so uncomfortable? As a client once shared with me, “A failure to know the answer or offer the solution feels like a failure of my leadership. That’s my job!”

I disagree. Always knowing the answer or what to do is not your job as a leader. It’s not your job to know. It’s your job to create the conditions through which smart people do their best thinking. Your job is to convene conversations that generate high quality solutions.

Once you begin to think about the job of leadership as convening you begin to use your time differently. You begin to ask different questions like:

What’s going on here and how can I frame a useful question?

What makes this problem or opportunity important? What’s at stake?

Whose perspective, or expertise do I need to bring into this conversation?

Being a convener means showing up ready to make every meeting a high-impact conversation. You must become what experts like Roger Schwarz refer to as a “facilitative leader.” Here’s what being a facilitative leader (versus a unilateral leader) looks like:

Facilitative Leaders…

Balance advocacy and inquiry
Ask open-ended questions
Invite and reward new thinking
Test assumptions and inferences
See conflict as useful
Take time to build shared commitment

Unilateral Leaders…

Debate and give speeches
Ask leading questions to make a case
Guard status quo or “preferred” thinking
Allow assumptions to be treated as facts
Try to minimize conflict
Look for quick, often tacit agreement

OK, say it out loud — “I don’t know.” When you recast your role from the person with the answers to a facilitative leader these words become an invitation to convene.

In order to become a masterful convener, what do you need to do differently?

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