Are you Brave Enough to Be Dumb
The courage to ‘not know’ may be the greatest leadership courage of all.
Mark Miller, the VP of High Performance Leadership at Chic-fil-A, told me that he would tell his younger self, “Stop trying to have all the answers.”
Not-knowing seems weak. Ego hides behind a facade of knowledge and competence.
Don’t pretend you know when you don’t. Most people know you’re faking it anyway.
Humility enables leaders to not-know and makes space for others TO know.
Everyone waits for instructions from the all-knowing leader. Can you afford to have people waiting?
Courage to not-know instills boldness in others.
If you always know, they’ll stop offering suggestions.
Courage to not-know honors the skill and creativity of the people around the table.
Brave enough to seek advice:
Greg Dyke, Director of the BBC from 2000 to 2004 asked two questions when he took the helm of the struggling company.
- What is the one thing I should do to make things better for you?
- What is the one thing I should do to make things better for our viewers and listeners?
Francesca Gino observes that new leaders often feel a need to have answers (Like Mark Miller) and explain THEIR vision. It might seem weak to ask questions before establishing your competence as a leader.
Gino’s research indicates the opposite, “… asking for advice increases rather than decreases how competent you are perceived to be.” (Rebel Talent)
Tip: The use of “could” is better than “should”. There’s more space to answer openly if you ask, “What’s one thing I COULD do to make things better for you?”
Action steps for today:
- Ask a dumb question. “This might be a dumb question but I’m wondering …?”
- Ask your team, “What one thing could I do to make things better for you?”
Where might leaders need to practice not-knowing a little more?
How might leaders not-know in a leaderly manner?
I would look back at my younger self and say, “try to be more patient with yourself and others” But then again, if I was more patient then I would not have learned the lessons I have along the “broken road”.
Thanks Roger. It’s one thing to learn from mistakes it’s another to celebrate harming others or intentionally doing things we know will harm us.
Dan: I honestly don’t believe that I have actively engaged in this type of behavour, “it’s another to celebrate harming others or intentionally doing things we know will harm us.” But I know that others have done that to me, a few times. You’ve hinted around this harm concept in a number of posts, maybe time to flush it out more fuller for discussion.
My first reaction to your title was “I don’t consider myself Brave it just comes naturally to me!” being dumb that is.
Thanks Brandon! At least your smart enough to acknowledge it. 🙂 Cheers
I like this idea, and I also think it is just as important to create a culture where it is okay not to know all the answers and encourage the team to collaborate and work together to come up with the best answers.
Thanks Pat. One way to do this is to celebrate mistakes and share what you learned. I just had a conversation with a leader who told me about the Back of a Duck trophy. If you screw up you get a trophy of a ducks behind. The point is to honor mistakes. 🙂
It’s not a fault or weakness to admit you don’t know something. It is a strength. And it takes courage. You should never apologize for being human. And that is what I told my direct reports.
Thanks Daryl. And I bet you have shared your own mistakes with your team. They are fortunate to have you.
Admitting you do not know the answer allows others to provide answers, to share input or to collaborate to find the answer. The good leaders I know will say, “I don’t know the answer offhand, but I’ll do some searching and find that.” Or, they may ask if those asking the questions would like to be part of finding the answer. Humility does not infer stupidity.
Thanks Carole, It’s one thing to use ignorance as an excuse. It’s another to say, “I’ll look into it and get back to you.” The former is weak. The latter is leaderly.
Having been recruited many times to be a “fixer” for projects that have gotten locked up and “broken,” I can testify to the true dynamic … that
Ego overtly Dominates (rather than hides) upon the edifice of perceived competence and apparent mastery over knowledge …
and is fairly easily undermined if it asserts its authority over the resolution of a complex problem (which is actually the norm, as most everyone has experienced).
“Not (already) knowing” is not dumb, or actually ignorant, it is the first intelligent posture to take to open a genuine (consensual) dialogue among people who are (already) clearly vested in incompatible views of the facts.
If you don’t know, you are positioned to be the “honest broker” as to what the (consensual) facts actually are. That is two-thirds of the leadership “way” to “fixing” / resolving apparently intractable and incompatible worldviews, and actually moving forward into the future with mutual (win/win/win) success.
Many egos are dissembled by the material and relevant facts being put into a non-zero sum solution … the “dumb” ones are those that persist in a win-lose scenario when everyone can see there’s an easier, better, and less abusive resolution in hand.
Thanks Rurbane. Some other comments included the important idea that not-knowing isn’t the same as being stupid. A stupid person is incapable of learning something.
Thanks also for bring the zero sum game idea to this conversation. It’s dumb to think of learning opportunities in the context of winners and losers.
Inevitably, egos will assert something to the effect of, “You’re not as smart as you think you are” (insinuating, of course, that they, in fact, know better/best) …
And is met with my favorite phrase, “No doubt; educate me …”
They ALWAYS over- project their own mistakes onto you … accelerating their own dissolution, and paving the way for the best consensual resolution.
Not knowing is a statistical norm, therefore extracting truth from the bs is an improvement over the (obscured) status quo. The only thing that takes bravery/courage is standing up to the manipulative/coercive authoritarian bullies – best done with an earned/hard-won consensus.
Thanks again. Sometimes standing against an egotistical know-it-all helps to humble them. Other times it just creates an enemy, sadly.
I’m trying to get a handle on healthy ego vs. egotistical. It’s a slippery topic, but I think relevant to the courage to not-know.
Ego (I, as opposed to you or us together) is imperative to mental health and successful navigation thru life&society;
It’s dysfunctional when it resorts to dominance thru coercion and manipulation, as opposed to relation thru empathy and persuasion, IMHO.
Humility, Courage, and the willingness to learn are important leadership traits. No one knows everything and those who project a persona of perfection do it at the expense of authenticity. Asking questions is part of being authentic which is a key attribute on the path to effective leadership.
Thanks Ron. Your connection of curiosity with authenticity opens a lot of doors. Very powerful.
A leader who doesn’t ask questions is pretending to be something/someone they aren’t.
Thank you Dan, I enjoy your articles and appreciate your accessibility. Keep those great articles coming!
Well said, complements the key points from Lencioni’s take on Naked Consulting and the great business fable about being vulnerable enough to be dumb that is told in the book.
The leaders need to withhold their urge to TELL, to ADVISE and to share their experience spread over years. As Ron put it perfectly that a persona of ‘know-it-all’ puts a mark on authenticity and leaders eventually go on either to lose precious people or they take the motivation out of others.
Years ago I was given the book Imperative People: Those who must be in Control and it helped me understand my natural inclination toward control and insisting on being in charge, even when I’m not. It created a sense of self-awareness which helped me over the years.
Great stuff! I especially liked the question of how can I “…do to make things better….”
Where does asking a question when you already know the answer fit in?
I am writing on the blog after a long time but I always read your post.
I agree that leaders knowing everything perhaps do not encourage idea generation to float. This also sends the signal that there is less scope to bring creativity.
I think and you have mentioned about humility which is an absolutely essential ingredient for leadership. Humility makes people understand the depth and breadth of knowledge.
When ego starts invading leaders, they avoid taking suggestions. Eventually, they feel they have all the answers.
I have seen leaders answering all the employees’ queries start become autocratic. They get surrounded by sycophants who only muster their ego. Therefore, an element of humility is a must in leadership.