It’s impossible for a leader to know everything. Irrespective of how smart, capable, and intelligent they may be, navigating the challenges and unknowns along the way requires them to always be learning - acquiring new knowledge, building new skills, replacing old and outdated beliefs to match with the future demands of their industry.
Not knowing something as a leader is not a massive disadvantage. Not being curious and open about what they don’t know is.
The difference between leaders who push their teams to the ground and those who take their teams to great heights isn’t knowledge, capability, or competence. It isn’t even their motivation and desire to succeed. They both want to achieve success.
What sets them apart is the difference in how they handle their ignorance. What sets them apart is confident humility. Confident humility is the confidence in a leader’s ability to make the right decision while acknowledging that they need others to do it right. It’s knowing what they don’t know and having trust in what they do. It’s having faith in their strengths, while also being aware of their weaknesses. It’s accepting that they don’t have the required knowledge, but enough confidence in their ability to acquire that knowledge.
Adam Grant describes it as -
Having faith in our capability while appreciating that we may not have the right solution or even be addressing the right problem. That gives us enough doubt to reexamine our old knowledge and enough confidence to pursue new insights
All leaders have blind spots - known unknowns (things they know they do not know) and unknown unknowns (things they don’t know that they don’t know).
A leader with confident humility isn’t devoid of blind spots. Rather they put measures in place to counter those blind spots.
Ignorant leaders refuse to see their blind spots. It’s not their ignorance that gets in the way of their success, but their attitude to that ignorance. Their ignorance isn’t limited to their skills and abilities, but also how they come across to others. How they engage with their teams.
There are lurking gaps in how people see themselves and how others perceive them leading to inadvertent blind spots. This is further exacerbated by their past beliefs, experiences, upbringing, and many other psychological factors. Unless leaders take time to reconcile reality, these blind spots perpetuate disconnect and dissonance with their people.
How do they behave when someone makes a mistake? How do they respond to challenges at work? How do they handle conflicts? What they do and how they behave carry far more weight than what they say.
Good communication isn’t about what’s being said. It’s about how the other person perceives it. Leaders need to internalize this to get rid of their own biases that get in the way of seeing how they come across to others. Only when they hear their people and truly listen to what they have to say, can they separate helpful from unhelpful behaviors and only then can they turn their ignorance into meaningful contribution.
You can’t improve if you don’t know what you’re doing wrong - Shane Parish
Leaders who are ignorant of their people are disconnected from the true problems that impact their team’s productivity and performance.
They have a superficial relationship with their people often limited to work-related interactions - Why something isn’t working. How are we going to fix it? When are they going to deliver the project?
Without taking time to understand their employees as humans first and employees next, they never build the connection required to achieve anything significant as a team. People work and treat their job responsibilities as an obligation and not something that they care about. Lack of a sense of progress, purpose, and belonging, often causes their team to burnout.
Not caring personally about their team also makes them neglect each individual's strength. This makes them do a terrible job of mapping the right people to the right opportunities. Missed business targets lead to frustration and lack of proper growth opportunities causes attrition.
**Only when leaders establish a human connection, only when they take time to ask questions, and only when they connect to their people’s internal motivation, can they turn their ignorance into effectiveness.
Many leaders think they are better than they are. Their cognitive bias impedes their ability to correctly self-assess. They wrongly overestimate their knowledge and skills. They believe they are much smarter, more capable, and competent than they really are.
The Dunning Kruger effect makes it worse - they feel highly confident to handle the decision-making and daily challenges of their job while being less competent to do so.
It’s the worst kind of ignorance - not knowing how little you actually know.
Their brilliance gets in the way of making the right decisions. This makes them consider their version of reality as reality and not just one version of it. They refuse to listen to other people’s opinions. Instead of asking questions, they lead with answers. Instead of encouraging disagreements, they punish those who disagree with them.
They not only know less than they think they do, they also refuse to use the collective knowledge of their team to make better decisions. They fail to build new skills or acquire new knowledge that will help them get better at their job. Stuck in a worldview that they know enough, makes them ignore their mistakes and forgo all learning opportunities.
Sometimes this ignorance may come across as pure arrogance and at other times utter foolishness.
Another issue is their attitude towards problems. When something doesn’t go as expected, they refuse to take responsibility because it goes against their belief system of being a highly capable, intelligent, and knowledgeable person. Refusing to own problems makes them resort to blame thereby giving away an opportunity to solve the real problem.
As we stop rapidly accumulating knowledge, many of us get in our own way. Studies have shown that people, on average, believe they are well above average. In other words, almost everyone thinks they are far smarter than they actually are. It is this type of arrogance, the kind that makes us believe we know something, that prevents us from actually learning it well - Jeff Stibel
Admitting ignorance is the only way to embrace a mindset to learn. And if you are a leader, ignoring your ignorance is not an option.
Ending with this thought from Benjamin Franklin “Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn.”
Previously published here.