3 Things You Can Do When You Have No Idea What to Do

You would think there’s a time when you simply arrive as a leader.

When everything that used to be unclear is clear.

When no problem stumps you.

When years of reading, experience and prayer combine to the point where you just know what to do.

You would think…wouldn’t you?

The reality is…that time never arrives.

You’re Not Alone, Even If You Think You Are

Earlier this week I launched Episode 1 of my new leadership podcast—an interview with Andy Stanley. (Thank you to all of you amazing people who helped me launch it. What an incredible start!)

Here’s what blew me away about your reaction to Andy’s interview.

In my post on the episode, I supplied a few pre-made tweets featuring some favourite quotes from Andy. Personally, I was really interested in what Andy had to say about preaching and how he grows as a leader. And because I was interested in that, I thought those segments of the interview and the accompanying quotes would be the highlight for most people.

Dead wrong.

I also happened to include this quote from Andy about what happens we he doesn’t know what to do as a leader:

By far—hands down—that was the most retweeted quote from the interview.

Clearly if you feel like you don’t know what to do when you don’t know what to do as a leader, you’re not alone.

Hence…this post. So, what do you do when you don’t know what to do?


What About Prayer and Scripture?

Always, always, always start with prayer and scripture.

They are foundational.

Prayer is so vital and critical to the life of any Christian leader. No leader should make prayerless decisions.

The challenge, of course, is that when you’re dealing with a tough problem, often it’s difficult to tell what God wants you to do after you’ve prayed.

How will God speak to you? Will you feel differently? Will you hear a voice?

Often the answer is no, you won’t. And even if you sense something, how do you know if your feeling or prompting is truly God? These are important question (I’ve addressed them further in this article.) Clearly, if the prompting is contrary to scripture, it’s not from God. But sometimes the application from scripture isn’t clear, which leads us to the next point.

Scripture is an incredibly reliable guide for decision making. It gives us instruction in so many big and little things in life. Careful study of scripture over the years will give you answers that never come if you don’t read scripture. It’s brought tremendous clarity to my decision making as a leader and in life.

And yet there are times where even the most diligent students of scripture aren’t sure what to do about a situation they’re facing.

So when prayer and scripture don’t yield clarity, what do you do?


3 Things You Can Do When You Don’t Know What To Do

Here are 3 things that help me when I don’t know what to do as a leader.


1. Tell People That You Don’t Know

Admitting you don’t know is a difficult thing for many leaders to admit. I know as a younger leader I was afraid to admit it.

I did not title this section of the post “Admit You Don’t Know”, because I want to take it a step further.

Admitting you don’t know sounds like you should know but you don’t.

I’ve had to push past admitting I don’t know to simply telling people I don’t know.

And I think what surprised so many listeners is that even someone as wise, quoted and sought after as Andy regularly does that too.

Because the truth is…often we don’t know. We just don’t.

Doesn’t mean we can’t find out.

Doesn’t mean there’s no answer.

But often it means we simply don’t know. Not now. Not yet.

But listen to what happens when you begin to publicly say you don’t know.

When you let your team see that you don’t know, it immediately does three things:

  1. It tells them what they probably already know.
  2. It gives them permission not to know.
  3. It gives all of you a chance to figure it out together.
  4. It kills the culture of cover up that happens when leaders pretend to know, but don’t.

This is the part of the interview with Andy that surprised so many of you.

If you want to hear Andy talk about it, that part of the conversation starts at 17:02 of Episode 1.

Your whole team will grow if you refuse to walk in the room with all the answers. And that’s especially true when you actually don’t have them.


2. Get Input from the Godliest People You Know

Even though I don’t know and you don’t know, doesn’t mean someone doesn’t know.

That’s why I am incredibly passionate about every leader having an inner circle of wise people who can help you figure out what to do when you don’t know what to do.

If you’re wondering, this is how you can build that inner circle.

When I’m stumped, I turn to that inner circle. (Okay, even when I’m not stumped I turn to them.)

Sometimes there’s a clear answer. And often there’s not.

But through conversation, prayer and dialogue, we’re often able to find what appears to be the most sensible, godly path.

The longer I lead, the less likely I am to make a decision on my own. I crave godly counsel.


3. Ask Yourself This Question

A few months ago I shared this question, which has been so helpful to me as a leader.

When I really don’t know what to do. When prayer and scripture haven’t yielded clarity. When talking to the team hasn’t produced an answer, and when the inner circle of wise counsel isn’t sure what to do, I ask this question:

Five years from now, what will I wish I had done?

Believe it or not, sometimes that’s the clincher.

Clarity often comes quickly when I ask that question.

And if it doesn’t, I then do the thing I think I will wish I had done five years from now (can you get any more verb tenses in a sentence? Didn’t think so.)

So when you don’t know what to do, ask yourself: Five years from now, what will I wish I had done?


What Helps You?

Those are three things that have helped me immensely when prayer and scripture aren’t clear.

What has helped you?

What have you discovered when you tell people as a leader that you simply don’t know.

Leave a comment!


  1. Zoe on March 17, 2015 at 8:09 am

    thanks I tried prayer and scripture and i feel enlightened but I still don’t know what to do lol but that’s okay I’m sure things will be okay 🙂 <3

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 18, 2015 at 5:29 am

      Try what I talked about in the post.

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