Real Leaders Know What They Don’t Know

I’m afraid this might be a theme. I posted In Praise of Not Knowing here April 30, an ode to the value of respecting uncertainty. I suggested there that not knowing is a sign of intelligence. I’ve caught it a couple of times since in the context of leadership. Leaders know what they don’t know.

Bob Sutton recently posted his 12 Things Good Bosses Believe on one of the Harvard Business Review sites. Here are two points in his 12 that go straight to that point.

  • I aim to fight as if I am right, and listen as if I am wrong — and to teach my people to do the same thing.
  • One of the best tests of my leadership — and my organization — is “what happens after people make a mistake.”

Several months before that, also on a Harvard Blog, Bill Taylor posted Real Business Geniuses Don’t Pretend To Know Everything. Consider this:

In simpler times, fierce personal confidence, a sense of infallibility as a leader, might have been a calling card of success. Today it is a warning sign of failure, whether from bad judgment, low morale among disillusioned colleagues, or sheer burnout from the pressures of always having to be right.

I particularly like that last phrase: “the pressure of always having to be right.” That’s a hard path to take.

(Image: cowpland/shutterstock)


  • Analyzing Your Leadership Skills | Spa Week Daily says:

    […] Knowing what you don’t know is half the battle. […]

  • Bradford Shimp says:

    I think not only do leaders know what they don’t know, but they are still confident about themselves despite this. This is probably because they know what they do know, and understand its worth.

    Many people who are not good leaders have a sense of what they don’t know, but they give it way too much respect. They mistake knowledge for leadership and confidence. They therefore spend too much time trying to fill a gap in their own knowledge before taking action.

    The sign of a good leader is that she can bring others around her to fill gaps in knowledge, and is not intimidated by the knowledge of others.

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