Good Leaders Get Surprised
Maybe it’s time we stop trying to fool each other: nobody has all the answers. Admitting what we don’t know is the first step to improving it.
I recently conducted an organizational assessment to determine what was on the minds of team members and how they might use that information to improve their performance. I summarized the information provided during the one-on-one interviews I conducted and shared the report with the leader.
After reviewing the report the leader simply said, "I am not surprised by any of this." Does this mean he knew all these bad things and good things were going on in the team? I doubt it. If you knew about them wouldn't he have acted?
We live in a business culture where it is important to never seem surprised. Why? does it mean to BE surprised? Is being surprised a BAD thing? Wouldn't the sense of being surprised speak to being open to learning? And don't we think learning is a good thing?
We do, except when learning something new means admitting that we didn’t know something in the first place. To be open to learning means accepting a level of risk, which is apparently acceptable everyplace except in organizational leadership. Yet a healthy dose of surprise and humility can be a launching pad for innovation, creativity, and a new way of seeing things.
Some may believe that being surprised is admission of naiveté, and it may be, but it also may be something more. If I am willing to be surprised then I am willing to see others as teachers, collaborators, and a source of energy. As a leader in this complex world, I do not need to and couldn't hope to have all the answers or be all knowing. If this is true, a surprise is inevitable somewhere along the way.
To embrace surprise calls for a willingness to reengage with our full experience and balance hubris with humility. It is ok to be surprised; it is where the learning lives and maybe, just maybe, the momentum to make change.
In today's uncertain world we will likely see many surprises as we begin to rethink complexity and our approach to common problems. The old adage from leaders: "don't bring me any surprises" will certainly mean "keep me in the dark" as the complexity and surprise are inevitable.
Are you willing to be surprised, to learn something new, to change your view, to change your behavior, to rethink complexity as a means to invite a fresh perspective?