I Don't Know - And That's OK
“I don’t know.”
Three words that so many people, including both emerging and current leaders, find incredibly hard to say.
We’re bred on this perception that we need to have all of the answers, that we’ve mapped and thought through the entire journey - peaks, pitfalls, perils and all. And that all of these answers are at our fingertips. Because, after all, how can we assess your value and ability (leader or otherwise) if you aren’t seen as competent and hence confident - certainly on the path that we’ve elected to follow you on?
Turns out, though, that there’s a gulf between this perception and the facts. Turns out that we’ve let ourselves be lulled by a misplaced sense of what bravado, confidence and competence actually is:
According to David Mayer, an expert on leadership, diversity and ethics, the problem is in the way we view the archetypal leader. “Issues around confidence and competence fit into our prototype for what it means to be an effective leader,” he explains. “There’s pretty fascinating research on something called ‘implicit leadership theory,’ which basically asks the question, what are the characteristics that make an effective leader? This isn’t what actually is an effective leader. This is what people think is the stereotype or prototype of an effective leader. Some of the strongest parts of it have to do with things like being intelligent and being decisive. So when we picture a leader, we picture someone who has the right answer.”
Ironically, Mayer says that when you actually look at leaders who are effective — “not just what we think is effective” — they’re the opposite, showing lots of humility. “They do say, ‘I don’t know,’” he explains. “They realize other people have insights and abilities that they might not.”
Humility. In other words, honesty, humanity, lack of pretence. Brene Brown would probably call this the willingness to be vulnerable.
The fact is that real leaders aren’t the archetypal Big Swinging Dicks of yesteryear (see Michael Lewis and Liars Poker), full of machismo and bravado. Real leaders aren’t about keeping their people at a distance, always saying the right thing, never saying a wrong word and, God forbid, showing any amount of humanity.
No, real leaders work with their people, relying on them for their knowledge and contributions. Real leaders are assertive, yes, but thoughtful, understanding and open, and able to listen to and learn from others.
Real leaders dont have a problem with saying “I don’t know”.
Yet, too many of us still think that’s the prototype. That if we don’t act that way, we’ll be seen as weak. So we give in to the myth and put up a front. We avoid, or worse, try and bullshit our way through those situations that risk “exposing” us. We don’t let ourselves be vulnerable.
I’m sorry, that’s just far too exhausting. It’s too difficult, too hard. We can’t be who we aren’t. We just need to be real, be ourselves.
It’s harder to say I don’t know, to be vulnerable. But it’s also the sign of a real leader.