Ignorance as a Leadership Virtue

OK, admittedly, it’s a stretch. What I really want to focus on is a leader’s willingness to admit ignorance.

I’ve been fascinated lately by this paradox:
If a leader admits to ignorance on a topic, respect for him/her actually rises.
Conversely, if leaders attempt to appear certain and all knowing, people begin to close them out.

My interest and curiosity here is partly about the impact on the leader when he/she fesses up to confusion, uncertainty, vacillation and doubt. I’ve seen too many highly competent men and women attempting to appear in control, very certain and positive when internally they were riddled with doubt on a particular issue. They bear down and push on in the misguided belief that their followers need them to seem 100% sure, unalterably certain. This is the point at which the mantle of leadership begins to feel like a massive lead overcoat. In this well-intentioned but contrived effort to appear visionary and dedicated, the leader pays the emotional toll of outward pretense. In effect, she is coercing herself and deceiving others. A nasty array of physical, psychological, industrial and spiritual consequences results. The leader winds up feeling exhausted, overwhelmed and anxious.

Then there is the impact on the others – the followers: People intuitively sense when a leader is slogging through, mired in a sustained effort to appear all-wise and in control. They instinctively discern the difference between this anxious state and the demeanor of this same executive when he does have clear direction, firm commitment and genuine confidence. The leader’s attempt to appear in control raises their anxiety. It provides no permission for their own doubts to be expressed, and leaves them doggedly following a leader in a direction no one believes is proper. This breeds distrust, resentment and halfhearted implementation. The consequences suffered by the compliant followers are similar to those experienced by the pretending leader. This can be a disheartening and exhausting cycle.

This is when claiming ignorance becomes a leadership virtue:

  • You don’t know the answers.
  • They know you don’t know.
  • You know they know.
  • So why not get that fact on the table! Everyone will be greatly relieved, and creative dialogue can ignite!

When the leader “comes clean”, the most immediate and positive impact may be internal. There is a relief that can come with acknowledging our limitedness, our not-knowing, and our doubts. I’ve seen executives visibly drop that weighty mantel, erase a furrowed brow, and begin to breathe again! Predictably, over the next several minutes, there are deeper and deeper breaths as the executive reclaims the freedom that comes with acknowledging one’s human limitations.

While the leader is reclaiming her breath, there is room in the opening for the others to come alive. First, their own doubts find voice. Then ideas begin to flow, alternatives are spoken, and a creative energy is generated. The way has been cleared for their competence, commitment and intuitive problem-solving abilities to come forth. All this because the leader was willing to say what everyone knew all along: “I don’t know”, or “I’m not sure.” or “I’m out of ideas on this”, etc.

I have a model in my own life for this leadership virtue of claiming ignorance and limitations: Bishop Dennis Hickey, a former auxiliary bishop in the Catholic Diocese of Rochester, was widely regarded as an effective implementer of significant new undertakings. I remember this truly humble man acknowledging at his 40th anniversary as a priest that when these staggering new assignments came to him, he would turn to those around him, genuinely perplexed, and proclaim, “I have no idea how to do this!” As he said, “All kinds of help would just come out of the woodwork!”

This is far from ignorance as a ploy, a Tom Sawyer-like, manipulative gimmick to get others to do your work. This has to do with acknowledging one’s limitedness and staying on the same path with the rest of humanity. Welcome to the human race!

ã 2000, Frank Staropoli

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