Seven Ways to Not-Know Like a Leader
Pretending you know, when you don’t, makes you intentionally ignorant.
Confusion is the point of opportunity, if you have the courage to not-know.
Four dangers for all knowing leaders:
Pretending you know is an act of self-sabotage.
- Lost credibility. Smoke-blowers become obvious with time. They may not say it, but the more smoke you blow, the less credible you become.
- Limited influence. Your words mean less when you pretend you know.
- Persistent ignorance. If you pretend you know, you begin to believe you know, even when you don’t.
- Missed opportunities. You’re stagnant, if you aren’t confused. Organizations and leaders get stuck because they run from confusion.
Seven ways to not-know like a leader:
- Assume you don’t know. The illusion of knowledge is the reason leaders remain ignorant. “My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask a few questions.” Peter Drucker
- Create environments where not knowing is expected. Begin meetings by asking, “What are you learning?”
- Say, “I hadn’t thought of that. Tell me more.”
- Find clarity in private. Invite the people who really know into your office for a meeting.
- Keep notes during meetings. Writing is thinking. Record and ask questions from your notes. Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin family of companies, is a notorious note taker.
- Say what you know. Ask, “What am I missing?”
- Keep a running list of things you’d like to know but don’t.
Bonus: Honor those who ask questions when they don’t know. You get what you honor.
People who “know” don’t grow.
What’s dangerous about pretending to know?
How might leaders not-know in leaderly ways?
I have thought that there is a great amount of confidence in being able to say “I don’t know.”
One way for a leader to not-know in a leaderly way is to ask a subordinate to investigate and report back on the unknown issue, acknowledging they’d be ‘schooling’ the leader on a topic the leader was unfamiliar with. In this way the leader helps guide their staff to discover and learn something new, to be able to explain the issue to another, and for the leader to, hopefully, either praise the staff person for a job well done, or give more guidance so the staff can do better in the future.
I’m a little puzzled, maybe concerned somewhat, by this statement in your post: “Find clarity in private. Invite the people who really know into your office for a meeting.” In particular, why ‘private’? I believe asking in a public meaning is far better. It acknowledges capability, it likely will help the understanding of others in the meeting, it raises the probability of others contributing to the clarity, it increases the likelihood of identifying misinformation or understanding (and identifies subtopics needing further study), …. Bottom line, it makes good use of meeting time and has a greater probability of better / new product or process contributions to the organization bottom line. It shortens that new / better timeline for sure.
I’d think this would be true even if that clarity sought were based on probable incorrect understanding. But I’d see maybe some justification for this to be private initially at least…
If you don’t know, be honest and admit your not familiar with the topic. Contact individuals who are and ask them to lead, or educate yourself so you can lead the specific topic. Life’s lessons are learned everyday till we no longer can learn! Cherish your journey and learn all you can!
What’s dangerous about pretending to know? We’ve set ourselves up to be (correctly) seen as lying when the truth comes out, as it always does. And there goes trust, which is foundational.
IMO good leaders honor the knowledge that others have and create opportunities for them to use it and be recognized. Good leaders understand that even if we have the “same” knowledge we don’t all have the same perspective or use the knowledge in the same way, and allow for those differences.