There are four statements that lead to wisdom, writes bestselling author Louise Penny. They are:

  1. I don’t know
  2. I need help
  3. I’m sorry
  4. I was wrong

While these words of wisdom come from a leader in a fictional series, they strike me as Leadership Gold. Think about them while you reflect on your own leadership journey. How often have any one of these statements resulted in a relationship breakthrough or a solution breakthrough of some kind?

Let’s look at each of them.

I don’t know. As a leader, admitting you don’t know something is quite empowering. Rather than being trapped and feeling burdened by the outdated idea that leaders have answers to everything, if you can freely admit you don’t have all the answers, you immediately free others in your team to also admit their uncertainty. This is one of the first steps to fostering a learning organization — when leaders admit they are learning as well.

I need help. This is a biggie. For a lot of us, asking for help does not come easily. In my leadership practice, coaching leaders on when and how to delegate is a frequent session topic. But this statement can also reflect a deeper more personal need than just delegating. This can also mean I am in over my head; I can’t do this alone; I need new ideas; I need to hear diverse opinions; I am stuck.  In my experience, when I reached out in humility to my senior team, my mentors, my YPO peers or to my family and shared that I really needed help to solve an issue, the support, ideas and wisdom that I received gave me the strength I needed to keep moving forward and enabled me to see the situation from a new perspective.

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I’m sorry.   This statement is very effective when it is said genuinely and when necessary. For example, at times leaders can be too busy to take enough time with someone who may have something important to tell us. Over my career, I learned to watch for signs from the team member on this and tried to be more self-aware when I was short on time or acted in a dismissive way. I would take the time to follow up with the person afterwards. I would say something like, “It looked like you had more to tell me yesterday (or that you were frustrated about something or…). I am sorry I did not have time to spend with you. You are important to me and our team. I do have time later today. Would that work for you?” or “I am sorry I was short with you yesterday. I was focusing on meeting a deadline and it was not in any way about you. My apologies. Is there anything we need to discuss now?” Dealing quickly with each situation that calls for an apology will make a difference in keeping your relationships strong and healthy and may also prompt us to work on not repeating an unhelpful habit. Keep in mind, if we apologize too much, it means we are not working to fix the problem and relying on the apology as a crutch.

I was wrong.  For leaders, being able to admit mistakes is just as powerful as saying I don’t know. In fact, it is most likely more powerful. This ties in well to becoming a learning organization. When you take ownership for your own mistakes, misunderstandings and misjudgments and learn from them, you move forward as a stronger, wiser leader and a stronger organization. Remember as well, leaders are role models. When we admit we are wrong, others can too.

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