In a panel discussion I was moderating, the head of digital transformation of a major bank revealed how she didn't have a technology background. ‘I'm a traditional banker, I don't know tech. When I landed the role, I thought it would be challenging, but it proved to be an enabler. Had I come from a tech background, I would have operated in the realm of what's possible. Because I didn't deep dive into the technology aspects, and my focus was what our customers wanted, I could operate in the realm of what's desirable.’ She smiled. ‘The great thing was our tech team rose to the vision and made it happen.’
Her revelation of embracing her ‘I don’t know’ struck a chord. That’s not the words you would expect to hear from a seasoned leader. Yet there was a deeper lesson here, which could be applicable to every area of our life. And that is, ‘I don’t know’ can unleash your leadership superpower.
I know that this goes against the grain of everything that we have been brought up to believe.
In school, we are told to study hard so as to avoid NOT KNOWING. After all, knowing helps us ace exams. Then, we are hired for our knowledge and skills. And it's our knowledge that enables us to competently get our tasks done and get promoted. Our superiors rarely like to hear the words "I don't know." So, we work hard to ensure that we do know.
Yet, when we take the mantle of being leaders, our strive for knowledge (or creating the perception of knowing) has a dark side.
That dark side can unravel into a large stumbling block especially visible in today’s fast-changing, disruptive and uncertain world.
Here are three reasons why.
1. Knowing can quash initiative and innovation. When we believe we know everything, we seldom allow others to share their ideas and perspectives. This not only deadens thought and inhibits new innovative ideas from coming up, they also inhibit the growth and mental well-being of the people we work with.
I once coached a leader who operated from a position of knowing so much that she even tends to complete people’s sentences. Naturally, her team stopped speaking up after that. They just went along with whatever she said. Yet, she complained how she wished they would be more proactive and offer more suggestions. Take a leaf from the late Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, who famously said "It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do."
2. Knowing can limit our perspectives and the quality of decision making. When we believe we know we are less likely to ask questions. We tend to talk more and listen less. And we all know that it’s listening that helps us learn and widens our horizons. Thus KNOWING limits our perspectives and often reduces the quality of our decision making. The way leaders listen to their teams can permeate into the culture of the organisation.
Steve Yeggie, Head of Engineering, Ads and Monetisation at Grab, known as the world’s second most innovative company, shared on Medium how the company’s mantra ‘Go to the Ground’ is the key to fast innovation. Leaders don’t assume they know. They ask. They are ‘constantly encouraging every employee to get involved with actual Grab users as often as possible, so that as an organisation they can be instantly aware of both customer needs and incoming changes, and pivot quickly.’
3. The quest to know can be extremely pressurising and self-defeating. As an executive coach and transformation consultant, I work with many leaders who are very stressed. Logically so when a digital-immigrant leader needs to manage digital-native staff and steer their organisation in increasingly uncharted waters, when they themselves may not be certain. In this digital-first world, replete with things like blockchain technology, artificial intelligence and cloud computing, leaders need to lead people smarter than them, who are in roles that didn't even exist just a few years ago. Trying to cope with this AND stay ahead of the others (who could well be domain matter experts in a dozen different disciplines) can be a soul-destroying and futile quest.
Fortunately, there are some fairly straightforward actions we can all take to unleash our I DON'T KNOW superpower.
1. Learn to say it out aloud. Try it. There! See that wasn't so hard after all. And didn't it feel liberating.
2. Listen when people who know respond to you.
3. As they share, look for those pieces of the puzzle that can help you assemble the bigger picture and make better decisions.
4. Remember, even though the people you lead may be domain matter experts, you as the leader have the bigger picture. You can learn to hone and trust your people skills to coordinate efforts and support them in achieving the task on hand.
5. Most importantly, encourage your team members to learn and grow, so that they stay engaged, happy and motivated. The intention in which we lead is visible.
I believe that activating our "I don't know" mindset also paves the way for us to accelerate our leadership journey.
We gain the confidence to take on our dream leadership roles, even if it didn't follow our exact academic qualifications, previous industry or functional experience. It enables us to be trailblazers, charting our own career path, with a more enriching perspective. As Piyush Gupta, CEO of DBS Bank, shared in an interview with Euromoney, “I’m a big believer in having generalists. One of the reasons I’m a good banker is I know a little bit about everything: I’ve run mortgages, I’ve done cards, consumer, corporate banking, transaction banking.
By embracing our not knowing, we elevate our personal and professional growth. This virtual cycle enables us to be better leaders by activating leadership superpowers such as self-awareness, curiosity and empathy. This is the spark that forges deeper connection, and helps us to bring out the best in people.
Don't take my word for it.
Try it, and experience the difference.
About the author
Featured as one of the ten influential professional speakers in Singapore, Karen Leong is a transformation thought leader and global keynote speaker on influence.
An amazon best-selling author, TEDx speaker and executive coach, Karen helps executives elevate their impact. Her seminal book – Win People Over and Influencing styles profiling tool have been used to empower teams in Fortune 500 companies.
Karen is the managing director of Influence Solutions, an award-winning learning and development firm helping people and organizations to be F.I.R.S.T.™ - Future-Ready, Innovative, Relevant, Strategic, Trusted. She is also the co-founder of Rise Through the Ranks, a global leadership virtual summit empowering thousands from over 70 countries.