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Try admitting ignorance, become a better leader

 

My work as a leadership coach gives me the satisfaction of interacting daily with people who have gained a high level of subject-matter and technical expertise in their chosen fields.

In most cases, their knowledge enables CEOs, presidents, managing partners, executive directors and other top-level leaders to improve their decision making, build credibility and achieve a competitive advantage. It also confers emotional benefits, notably "the swagger of expertise," an air of confidence that impresses clients and attracts followers.

The downside of knowing

The benefits of knowing what you’re talking about should not be underestimated. But most leaders I work with are so focused on dispensing answers and solutions that they lose sight of the disadvantages of being knowledgeable:

  • Over-relying on telling, solving and fixing when mentoring direct reports.
  • Staying in their comfort zone of "technical expert" and training others to be like them-an approach more likely to produce experts than leaders.
  • Paying more attention to knowledge than to wisdom, and missing opportunities to promote maturity, self-awareness and relationship skills in those they lead. (Note that this tendency to overvalue technical expertise is reinforced in business schools. Carin Conlon, executive director of executive programs at the University of Rochester’s Simon Graduate School of Business, acknowledges that none of the executive MBA program’s 15 core courses specifically targets students’ ability to think critically about relationship management, mentoring and the emotional processes that affect day-to-day leadership.)
  • Believing their value lies in always having the answer and always knowing what’s best. Since no individual can be all-knowing, leaders create a double bind: They cannot possibly deliver what they believe others expect of them. This fosters chronic anxiety.

Purpose of leadership

Leadership pre-dated humans. For millions of years, elephant matriarchs, alpha wolves and dominant chimpanzees have helped their groups survive. How have they done it? Through knowledge gained from experience, strong relationship ties and mentoring that promotes responsibility.

The main purpose of leadership-whether the group is a family, a business or a nation-is to promote maturity and responsibility in followers. Leadership is more than expertise; it’s mostly about helping others build strength. Constantly telling people what to do, and providing answers and solutions, runs counter to that fundamental purpose.

Promoting maturity means challenging others instead of doling out directives. It means permitting autonomy and initiative in problem solving. It also means allowing others to learn, to take on responsibility and to manage adversity, and resisting the urge to cram lessons down their throats.

Strategic ignorance

One of the best ways a leader can promote another’s maturity, learning and growth is by adopting a stance of strategic ignorance, consciously choosing not to provide an opinion, answer or solution. Because most leaders have been trained to provide answers, learning to do the opposite requires concerted effort. Consider the following:

  • CEO Donna had typically viewed staff problems as hers to resolve, often asking, "What can I do to help you?" She observed that this left others helpless and increased her stress. Today, when employees bring problems to her, she is more likely to respond, "What are your ideas about how to fix this?" or "What’s your next move?"
  • Arthur, the physician leader of a large radiology practice, was approached by one of the firm’s radiologists who wished to excuse himself from the annual meeting. "Do you think this is a meeting I have to attend?" asked the physician. "I have no idea," Arthur replied. "I don’t see it as my job to make that decision for you."
  • Jay, a partner in an engineering firm, had clear ideas about where his daughter should attend college. He noted her lack of interest in college research and her missed application deadlines. One evening, Jay said to her: "I have been acting like I know where you should attend college, but I now realize I have no idea where you should go to school. I’m just letting you know." The next day, his daughter spent two hours online, researching colleges.
  • Julia, vice president of human resources for a health care company, found herself in an informal conversation with a recently divorced colleague whose office was nearby. The colleague asked Julia for advice on how to keep the lines of communication open with his three children. "I’m not sure what would work for your children," Julia responded, "but in my view, it’s an important question to ask."

Three capacities create the conditions under which strategic ignorance can work:

  • Leaders must be genuinely convinced that they don’t have all the answers. This includes the belief that "I don’t know what’s best for others; I can only speak for myself."
  • Leaders must develop confidence that others can and will resolve a problem without the leader’s input: "I am not indispensable to progress."
  • Leaders must be able to distinguish when to give answers and when not to. Sometimes-under the pressure of tight deadlines or in true emergencies, for example-a leader’s well-founded solution should be provided. At other times, a leader’s choice to withhold an answer is likely to promote another’s confidence and growth. There is a time to give answers and a time not to give answers. Being able to tell the difference defines astute leadership.

A firefighter I know remarked that when he was young and heroic, he would find a way into every burning building, even if the odds of saving life or property were low. But "after 20 years fighting fires," he said, "I have learned that there are some fires you don’t try to fight."

The seasoned leaders I have met seem more comfortable with their ignorance than less experienced leaders. Maybe it’s because they’ve learned that giving answers is like fighting fires: There are some answers you just don’t give.

John Engels is the founder of the Advanced Leadership Course and president of Leadership Coaching Inc., a Rochester executive development firm. He can be reached at [email protected]

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