We all know it’s lonely at the top. When leading through moments of historic change, it can feel even lonelier. The good news: It doesn’t have to be.

As leaders, we’re socialized to think we should have all the answers, and that distributing strategy top-down is a sign of power. Feeling unsure or afraid, on the other hand, is a sign of weakness. This dynamic is a manifestation of paternalistic leadership. It’s keeping us “alone” at the top, and it’s particularly resonant if you’re unsure how to resolve systemic racism in your organization.

“Paternalism appears when decision making is only clear to those who have the most power,” says Create Forward Founder and President Piper Anderson. “It’s the belief that leaders do not need to get input from people who are lower on the hierarchy. That they’re capable of making decisions that will address everyone else’s needs.”

If you’re presently afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing, your doubt may be rooted in paternalism — in the belief that it’s even possible for you (or a small group of senior leaders) to establish a plan that could, for example, dismantle racism at work.

Instead of feeling bad about this tendency, decide not to work alone. Step into shared leadership.

“It’s a reframing from power over to power with,” says Piper. “A realization that you do not have all the answers even though you’ve been given most of the power. And that you do need to get input from folks all the way down the hierarchy who you’ve never collaborated with before.”

Stepping into your team is especially important in times of distress, says Heidi Brooks, Professor of Organizational Behavior at Yale School of Management: “Now is really a time to be talking to people, not isolating. It’s a time to actually learn about your leadership tendencies, because they’re showing up.”

Importantly, white leaders must realize that it is impossible to lead — helping people through times of ambiguity and tension by promoting meaning making — if you’re anchored in risk management or self protection. “Doing so protects your privilege of not being uncomfortable,” says Heidi. “Silence is condoning the status quo of systemic racism. Your voice matters right now. You cannot listen silently. You have to encourage people, including yourself, to come out of a perspective of fear and get more grounded.”

The first step to getting more grounded is realizing that you cannot solve issues like racial justice and pandemic re-openings overnight. We are in an unprecedented process. We are not in solutions mode. Our goal is steady iteration, which must be rooted in feedback – both from leaders and from employees. This feedback requires trust, which comes from leaders modeling vulnerability themselves; without trust, your people will not tell you the truth.

“Action feels imperative right now — but action towards what? Most people cannot clearly say what problem they’re solving. Solving racial justice in your organization is a very unclear problem statement,” says Heidi. “Instead, use this opportunity to say: ‘Actually, we don't know the answers. We’re going to rely on good conversation and high-quality inquiry so we can learn as much as possible during this time.’”

Organizational learning does not mean relying on Black employees for education. Rather, it means encouraging everyone, following the leader’s participation, to collectively reflect on questions like: What do we want this organization to be like? How do our personal experiences differ? What’s the delta from where we are now? What might it look like to bridge the gap?

“This is not a one-time listening session where the leader stays silent, or brings in an outside consultant,” says Heidi. “I'm a big fan of a great plan, but a lot of great plans are never implemented. So be careful of checking the box by looking like you're acting. We cannot touch culture, so the only way to improve it is through the way senior leaders behave and think. If leaders want something different for their culture, they have to personally undertake those changes of mind, heart, and capacity.”

If this change process sounds ambiguous or intangible, that’s because it is. Until you truly make space to step into your team’s perspectives and needs, genuinely pulling those beneath you into the analysis and decision making, your plans will likely oversimplify and underdeliver. Present discomfort is rooted in anxiety over how to quickly resolve tension. But once you realize the tension is the process rather than the problem, immediate action is no longer the goal.

When will you know if you’re making progress? “It’s simple,” says Heidi. “You’ll know your adaptations are positive when your team — especially those who have less social power — can confidently say, ‘Yes, this is working.’”