I see it with my clients. I see it with my colleagues. I see it in myself. It’s damn hard to admit when we don’t know something. Somewhere along the line, we came to believe that being a leader meant being sure. Knowing the answers. Having the best and rightest solution to every problem.

It’s not true.

The strongest leaders I see are the ones who admit what they don’t know and what they’re not sure of, and who reach out to others for opinions, advice, and perspective. But why is that so hard to do?

Why have we come to expect our leaders to be infallible, and ourselves to be infallible? It’s a huge – and impossible – mantle to carry.

It might be our culture based on independence, a pioneering spirit, and “just do it-ness,” but it almost doesn’t matter where it comes from. What matters is our ability to throw that constraining belief aside and start afresh, and to be willing, as leaders, to take a deep breath and say, “I don’t know.” We need to:

  • Admit when we don’t have the answer – It takes a bit of willing to be vulnerable and to not appear omniscient, but we have to acknowledge our lack of surety and knowledge, and let that not be a bad thing.
  • Surround ourselves with smart people – Effective leaders know that while they don’t know everything, there are people who know the things they don’t. The best leaders make sure that they have smart advisors, that the people around them know at least as much as they do, if not more.
  • Be open to other perspectives – Having smart people and ideas around you doesn’t help if you’ll ask for – and then reject – other opinions. Successful leaders know that not only do they not know everything, but that they also don’t always know best.
  • Find people who’ve walked this road before – Experience is one of the best teachers. If we’re faced with a problem we can’t figure out, chances are there is someone somewhere who has dealt with the same – or at least similar – situation. We’re much better equipped to figure a way out if we turn to someone who has “been there, done that.”
  • But remember that experience may blind us to innovation – While experience is beneficial, it also can cause us to not see the differences, and nuances, in the current situation. It’s a best practice to trust your understanding of a situation, based on a record of success, and then at least once, second-guess your understanding to make sure you’re not falling into ruts.
  • Just say itJump in. Take the plunge. Be willing to risk it. Say, “I don’t know,” and see what happens. Does the world fall apart? Do you lose the respect of others? (If so, you probably never had it in the first place.)

The strongest leaders I know are the ones who know what they know, and admit what they don’t know and what they’re not sure of. The strongest leaders I’ve seen reach out to others for opinions, advice, and perspective. They consider it, weigh it against their knowledge and truths, and make a Thoughtful decision.

The strongest leaders I know are willing to say, “I don’t know,” and look for the answers.

How have you learned to say “I don’t know?”
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If you enjoyed this post, you can read more like it in our book, The Power of Thoughtful Leadership: 101 Minutes To Being the Leader You Want To Be, available on Amazon.

For support in admitting what you don’t know and moving forward, contact Lisa at lkohn@chatsworthconsulting.com.

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