A Leader’s Most Powerful Words

by | Jan 26, 2023 | Leadership

“I don’t know” are three of the most powerful words a leader can say.   

Last week, I was talking through an issue with one of my executives. We weren’t exactly on the same page, and I was trying to explain my point of view, but I wasn’t doing a great job because I wasn’t sure of my answer. I finally looked at them and said, “I don’t know. I don’t have the answer right now, and I need to figure it out.” As soon as I said those words, a couple of things happened.  

First, I felt a sense of relief come over me. Instead of doing a bad job trying to explain an answer I wasn’t sure about, I just came clean and said, “I don’t know.” Then the person I was talking to was suddenly more empathetic and ready to help; their whole demeanor changed.   

This all took place before the holidays, and then we talked about it when we got back. I told them how I felt after saying those words. They told me that after hearing me admit I didn’t know, they also changed. They were digging in, trying to figure out the why and seeking an answer.  

By telling them I didn’t know, their demeanor changed, and the conversation shifted to “cool, I’ll help you figure it out.” That’s what you’re looking for in your team members.   

You need to have trust in your teammates to say, “I don’t know.” Surround yourself with teammates who won’t judge you negatively for it. Find people who will come along ready to figure it out with you. That’s what I’m looking for in people, and that’s what I’m fortunate enough to have.   

When I was trying to explain something to which I didn’t have the full answer, it sounded like I was holding back. One thing about me as a leader, whether you like it or not, is that I always try to be completely transparent. I never want my teams to guess what I’m thinking. When I’m happy, I want you to know I’m happy. When I’m frustrated, I want you to know I’m frustrated and why. I want full transparency.   

While trying to explain my point of view when I was still trying to figure it out myself, it came across like I wasn’t being transparent, and I hate that. Once I finally said, “I don’t know,” that person realized I wasn’t holding back and was ready to help figure it out together. It was a powerful and enlightening moment.   

Saying “I don’t know” can be powerful as a leader and also as a parent. Parents and leaders sometimes feel like we’re expected to have all the answers, but we don’t. We may feel that way, but nobody else does. Surround yourself with people you trust and trust them enough to tell them you don’t know. The right people will respond by saying, “let me help.” That’s where the magic happens! 

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About Me

I am the President & CEO of Service Express, a National Best & Brightest Company to Work For. Service Express has averaged double digit growth every year since 2001.

We attribute our success to a unique corporate culture that we call The Service Express Way. I am a member of the Young President Organization and sit on the Board of the Spectrum Health Foundation.