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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Jun 28, 2019


Recognising that we don’t have all the answers makes us more effective as leaders - there is power in saying “I don’t know”.



Hello and welcome to episode 42 of the Leadership Today Podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week’s episode is the power of “I don’t know” - how, as leaders, recognising that we don’t have all the answers can make us more effective.

Some leaders feel that, to be truly effective, they need to have all the answers. These leaders think saying “I don’t know” demonstrates weakness, inadequacy or being unqualified for the job. That was my experience when I first moved from being an individual contributor to leading others. As a management consultant, much of my value was in my knowledge, experience and expertise. So I initially carried that same mindset into leadership. And the research shows that’s exactly what many leaders do - they try to stay in the role of ‘expert’. However, needing to have all the answers places an extraordinary burden on an individual. And our people just don’t buy it - it comes off as an act and a facade that no one can maintain forever.

Recent research shows that people who think they know it all routinely overestimate their cognitive capability - put simply, they aren’t as smart as they think they are. And this mindset has flow on impacts for the way they approach learning and new opportunities. Why would you try to learn more if you think you already know enough? Sure enough, the research shows that “know it alls” end up being less reflective and less curious than others. They stop learning and growing, limiting their future potential.

Other leaders recognise that they can’t know everything - that there’s always more to learn. Researchers call this mindset “intellectual humility”. It’s like having a growth mindset towards knowledge.

Research shows that people with intellectual humility benefit in six ways:

  1. They have greater general knowledge - those who can admit they don’t know actually know more than others
  2. Their knowledge is more accurate - they are right more often than other people
  3. They are more reflective - they take more time to think about their approach
  4. They enjoy mentally challenging tasks - stretching their minds further
  5. They are intellectually curious - they seek out new knowledge and experiences
  6. They are motivated to learn for the sake of new knowledge - they have wide interests, not just those needed for their job

It pays to recognise that you can’t know everything and that there’s always more to learn.

There’s a difference between saying “I don’t know” and not actually taking the time to find out. I once heard about a manager whose nickname was ’Mirrors’ - because whenever people asked him a question he’d always say “I’ll look into it”. But he didn’t follow through. This erodes trust - you need to close the loop.

Three things to try this week:

  1. Recognise it’s okay not to know everything - it’s a change in mindset, so think about the mindset you’re currently bringing and challenge it
  2. Be curious to learn more - not just in your field of expertise - a while back I completed an online MasterClass by the comedian Steve Martin which taught me a lot about story telling and structuring communication - I didn’t complete the course to help with my work, but the applications to my work have been surprisingly beneficial
  3. Coach rather than tell - foster an inquisitive mindset in your team - help them to see that they don’t need to know everything either

Just something quick before you go. The Leadership Today podcast has hit the Apple Podcast charts in a diverse range of countries including USA, Great Britain, Canada, India, Ireland, Brazil, Colombia, Netherlands, Russia, Spain, Switzerland, Slovakia, Australia, and New Zealand. Whenever the podcast or an episode gets into the charts, it helps a whole bunch of new listeners who can benefit from the material to find the podcast. We don’t have advertising and genuinely see this podcast as a gift to help leaders achieve results through people - there isn’t a catch. So I would really appreciate it if you could take a couple of minutes to provide a rating or review - in Apple Podcasts would be great, but whatever platform you use. Plus it’s fantastic to hear your feedback on the show - you can contact me via the Leadership Today website. Thanks.



Elizabeth J. Krumrei-Mancuso, Megan C. Haggard, Jordan P. LaBouff & Wade C. Rowatt (2019) Links between intellectual humility and acquiring knowledge,The Journal of Positive Psychology, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2019.1579359