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What Do ‘Certain’ Leaders Know?

By John McQueary

March 21, 2022



How do you lead with certainty when everything around you is so uncertain and seems to be changing daily? In my experience, it is by admitting that you are certain that you do not know everything. Mark Twain is often credited with a famous quote that goes something like this: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

If I were a politician, I would probably never win an election, as I would freely admit I do not know all the answers. While that might be bad politics, in my experience it is the ideal management style.

As a leader, I am of course expected to know the answers to most of my team’s questions, but I do not pretend to know everything. With changes in the economy, supply chain disruptions, and the general uncertainty in many areas of the current business climate, I choose to admit I have my share of uncertainties. However, I am certain that we’ll find a way to get through it. That is what I tell my team. When I am asked how potential lockdowns or visitor restrictions at client facilities might disrupt our business model, I confidently reply that I do not know for sure, but I know we have been through worse before and will adapt as necessary.

I often think of good managers as I do of good sports coaches. The best coaches have played the game before, do not act better than their players, and would never ask them to do something they have not done or could not do themselves. While the coaching concept of management is certainly not new, I believe it has become especially important in the last couple of years due to the dramatic changes in people’s work and personal lives with the COVID-19 pandemic. I think highly of a Little League coach my son had one year. The coach would pull my son aside after practice to check in when he was clearly having an off day. That kind of insight and display of genuine care helped my son play better baseball. It does the same thing with employees.

My team is made up primarily of salespeople, and salespeople, like many of us, are notoriously susceptible to making emotional decisions. Not all, but many will get in a “slump” due to a bad couple of meetings or a negative situation at home, and that negativity can become a self-fulfilling prophecy if not addressed. Knowing your employees’ individual personalities and being able to pull them aside for a chat and some encouragement can make a big difference.

I have read countless articles in business publications or in major news outlets about the “change in management style” that managers had to employ as a result of employees working remotely or juggling new challenges in their personal lives. As I read of leaders having to learn to “check in” and “open new doors for communication” for their employees, I could not help but smirk. I thought to myself, “If these managers were not taking time to check in with their employees and build a culture of open communication, what were they even doing before?”

When honest and open communication is standard, formal check-ins are often redundant. My team knows they can come to me with anything, business or personal, and I will show them respect, listen, and offer suggestions, encouragement, or direction when needed. I believe this builds natural trust. When you couple that trust with a generally positive outlook, then your team will know that even when you do not know all the answers, you are making decisions with them in mind and leading for the good of the company. My fellow leaders: You can have confidence that you don’t have to know everything, as long as you know your people.


John McQueary is national sales manager at CST Systems. He can be reached at