How can you lead if you don’t have the answers?

“Everyone’s looking to me. They expect me to know what to do. But I’ve never been in this situation before. They must think I’m a fraud. Why should they trust me with anything? Why would they listen to me or do what I ask them to. I’m not good at this……”

We’ve all been there. We have a moment of uncertainty. Imposter syndrome rears it’s ugly head and our confidence wobbles. Sometimes, these feelings last a few moments, then we move on to other challenges and regain our composure. At other times, we carry our anxieties over one awkward situation to the next. When this happens, it’s all too easy to slip into a problematic downward spiral of self-doubt.

Lessons from sport

Here’s a hypothetical question. If you were the world’s best footballer, tennis player or sprinter, how do you improve from there?  If you’re Usain Bolt and have ran faster than any other human being on record, how can anyone tell you how to get even better?

The worlds top athletes typically depend on other people for help with this challenge. They surround themselves with and listen to coaches and mentors who help them think. Consider, for example, Serena Williams, Lionel Messi or Simone Biles. Their coaches and mentors could never come anywhere close to replicating their amazing achievements. But what they do have is the ability to help these superstars figure things out for themselves.

Relating this back to your world as a doctor, you don’t need all the answers to be able to lead others. You don’t need to be the best at everything. You only need to know how to help others perform at their best.

The challenge for Medical Leadership

Psychologist and author Dr Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg has described how the best leaders are “willing to tolerate frustration and not knowing, and accept and handle uncertainties.” They “create energy from inventing the future and experimenting and finding the answers together. This requires a shift in leadership style from crisis management, which calls for a fast, top-down, unequivocal style, to explorative leadership, which is more open, inclusive, and nuanced.”

It’s true that an emergency situation benefits from an expert who can direct everyone with clarity and confidence. That comes from experience. But, as a doctor, the endless possibilities of context, individual patient presentations and reactions to interventions mean that no-one can prepare you with all the answers in advance. What they can do is to equip you with the ability to think for yourself, to know when and how to interact with your colleagues.

Modern healthcare is delivered in teams of professionals with diverse skillsets. So – rather than being the oracle who knows what everyone should do in every situation – the real challenge for medical leadership is to enable others to become capable, independent critical-thinkers. The challenge is to become skilled in engaging people in learning conversations.

What steps are you taking to improve your coaching and mentoring skills?

Stephen McGuire – Managing Director