Like many leaders, I came out of college knowing everything.
That was handy. I knew finance; I knew business; I knew marketing. I knew a whole bunch of stuff. I got hired because of what I knew.
Then I discovered what I didn’t know. And my real education began.
Certainly part of my “knowing it all” was the arrogance of youth. But like most people, I can’t blame it all on age. The need to know it all, to have all answers, typically follows people as they progress into leadership positions because that’s what the business world expects. Leaders are under pressure to be omniscient from their employees, their shareholders, their customers, and more.
But it’s in the “not knowing” that we grow as people and we become better leaders. We get better outcomes from not knowing.
I talk a lot about the paradoxes of leadership and this is a big one. As leaders, our people expect knowledge from us. They expect that even we can’t—or don’t—answer their questions, that we’ll point them in the right direction.
But every time we know something, we answer their question or point them in a direction, we neuter their learning. We curtail the development of their leadership skills.
Acknowledging that we don’t know boosts the health and strength of the organization. It empowers the wisdom and collective intelligence of the organization, the “system,” to grow and evolve. Because it’s the system—the people we work with, who work for us, the organization as a whole—that actually does know.
For a leader to be a catalyst for change, to effect transformation, he or she must acknowledge they don’t know. That’s tough for many leaders. We were hired for what we knew. We advanced in our careers for what we knew. Now that we’re at the top of our game—and we actually do know something—we’re supposed to admit that we don’t know? But the power is in the not knowing, in the pursuit of the question.
The more I know as a business leader, as a father, a family man, the more I realize that the key is in the not knowing. The power is in the question, not the answer.
Follow Ian on Twitter @IanMcKelvieCEO