How do you Lead When you Don’t Know Where you’re Going?

How do you lead when you don’t know where you’re going?

Jennifer TourvilleBy Dr. Jennifer Tourville, SMART

Being in a new leadership role with the Institute for Public Service and being a member of the IPS Leadership Team, I have recently spent a lot of time thinking about what kind of leadership skills I need to make our new SMART Initiative successful. I have read many books and attended numerous presentations. However, there is one area that isn’t often discussed, I assume since it is not relevant to many leaders. What I have recently been on the search for is “How do you lead when you don’t know where you’re going?”

I quickly shuffled from a faculty role at UT Knoxville to working with the president’s office to becoming a permanent employee of IPS. I then took on the task of growing a team and establishing new programs without a clear path forward. This has been challenging, though also exciting and rewarding. My limited experience starting large initiatives coupled with the critical need for success caused me to be uncertain in my decision-making, leading me to doubt myself and my abilities often.

I began looking for guidance and instruction regarding how to construct a path forward, where do we want to go, who needs to be on the journey, and how do we get there? While I still don’t, and maybe never will, have clear answers to those questions, I was able to find some helpful material that I return to when I’m lost or in doubt.

One of my favorites is a short article by Kuchler, How to Lead Through the Unknown, which discusses some strategies that I use as guidance:

  • Embrace uncertainty: unforeseen circumstances give us a chance for creativity.
  • Learn from your mistakes: missteps and mistakes will happen, take time to learn from them and leverage your adaptability.
  • Cultivate an open mind: accept that you do not know everything, create a culture where people are encouraged to think outside the box and ask questions.
  • Build a foundation of trust: be vulnerable as a leader, give your team hope by establishing trust and stability that will allow everyone to work together through whatever challenges are ahead.

While information found online and in books hasn’t resolved our challenges or made our path clear, it has made me consider the kind of work environment I want to foster, that I believe will get us where we need to be. We are not one boss and five employees. We are a team of six. Everyone has a voice. Everyone contributes ideas. Everyone’s perspective is valued. None of us knows everything, but we each carry a piece of the puzzle, and we will find our way by working together.