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It’s shameful; the business community neither understands nor respects ignorance—one of your most powerful tools as a business leader. The last two years have seen ignorance vastly misused by heads of companies and their advisors(1).

Oh, we’ve seen certainly seen ignorance galore. CEOs happily accepting $100,000,000 bonuses when times are good, yet declaring “I didn’t know there were problems” when their company tanks a month later. It’s hard to imagine a company owner who would reward that management with anything other than a pink slip, delivered with a swift kick to the private parts. If you’re going to use ignorance, don’t hide behind it as an excuse when things go wrong; use it to build something great.

Before you can get dumbness working for you, you have to conquer the fear of ignorance. It terrifies us, you know. Many people would rather die than admit they don’t know something. But taming the fear is easy. You don’t need a ropes course, or a month-long vision quest. Your demons are simply memories, right now. Probably memories of grade school. Third grade. When you were taunted mercilessly for saying “I don’t know” when a teacher asked a particularly tricky question. Or was it the parents, disappointed when you said “I don’t know.” Either way, get over it. That was decades ago. Now, you’re grown up. As kids in school, “I don’t know” gets us punished. But in the real world, “I don’t know” is the norm, and it brings great power.

Ignorance frees you to move

You see, the moment you say “I don’t know,” you’re safe. You can venture into the unknown and if things don’t work out, you’re blameless. In fact, you’ve already pointed out that you didn’t have the answers; but hey, you were willing to try anyway! You may try and fail, but you stepped up and gave it a shot. And that’s cool(2).

“Giving it a shot” includes doing what’s new, unusual, and out-of-the-box. When you purposely put yourself outside your realm of expertise, your full creativity can come out for the problem at hand.

And in the unlikely event you fail miserably, rather than collapsing in a gutter and living a life of utter desolation, you can use it as a learning opportunity and move on. Have you ever worked with someone who confidently drove their team/business/life off a cliff, because they were flat out wrong yet never questioned themselves? “I don’t know” saves you from over-confidence. When you know you’re in uncharted territory, you know to expect the unexpected (and learn from it).

Of course, even in uncharted territory, you always stride forward confidently; that’s what leaders do. But if you know the path is uncharted, you’re ready to change direction if it ends up leading straight off a cliff.

“I don’t know” unleashes leadership

One reason most people are afraid to say “I don’t know” is they think it means they’re somehow less than they were. Nonsense! It may create a bit more humility, but that’s a good thing. Humility gets your ego out of the way, making room for other people and their ideas.

Now, many of us are proud of having a mind like a steel trap; I know I am. But have you ever caught your leg in a steel trap, especially one of their own making? Ouch. It’s not pretty. Even if you have a mind like a steel trap, it’s not your ideas that will take you to the top; other people’s ideas will make you successful.

You’re a leader. Leaders, by definition, bring out the greatness of everyone around them. Key words, everyone around them. You won’t lead by doing everything yourself. You must let others contribute, even if you can do the job better. Proclaiming ignorance—even when you may know the answer—tosses the problem back to your team. If they whine, take the bait: step in and coach them. But don’t solve the problem for them; coach them to develop the skill to solve the problem.

(Yes, yes, of course you could have done the job yourself in half the time, but this way, you’re building an organization that will complete the next job for you, while you spend your time on much Greater Concerns.)

Oddly, people will respect you for taking this approach. Admitting your ignorance builds respect. It shows you have the strength of character to admit you’re not perfect, and if accompanied by confident delegation and coaching, it turns into a development experience for those around you. And best of all, delegating will give you time to lose sleep over strategy, instead of just daily emergencies.

Sometimes, you need to know

Have I convinced you, yet? Good. But remember to use common sense. Sometimes, it is your job to know the answer. CEO should know how their company is doing at any moment. The VP of Sales should know the names of the three biggest customers. Functional specialists should know their content areas. If you find yourself saying “I don’t know” about things you should know, go set up systems to stay informed.

But otherwise, say “I don’t know.” Say it proudly. Say it with confidence. You’ll discover it’s a powerful phrase that, used correctly, will unleash your creativity, give you the freedom to experiment, and help you build a strong organization rather than carrying the load yourself.

Action steps

  1. Are you afraid to say “I don’t know?” If so, start saying in about unimportant stuff and watch the reactions of those around you. You may be surprised.
  2. Choose a problem you’re stuck on in an area you know. Now clear your mind, say “I don’t know,” and approach the problem from a mindset of knowing nothing. Play with the problem. Engage your creativity. Find out what happens.
  3. What are you doing because you’ll the best job, even though there are better uses of your time? Look in the mirror, laugh, and say, “I don’t know how to do that any more.” Then stop knowing, find someone else and let them take over. It will drive you nuts, but enjoy it.

(1) I feel strongly about this topic. Strongly and with much random angst. See my essay “A Rant About CEOs Who Don’t Know” for a thoroughly irrational diatribe on CEO behavior. back to article

(2) Have you seen American Idol, yet? It’s a dreadful tv show in which hundreds of talented (and thousands of untalented) singers get made into losers—nationally. But as much as I ridicule the washouts in fluorescent spandex, they had the guts to go for it in front of fifty million people. And that’s worthy of respect, spandex or no. back to article

A Tribute to Ignorance: Your Greatest Leadership T…

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