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The Power of “I Don’t Know”

Sir Ken Robinson is an expert on education. learning, and creativity.  He tells a story about once having served on a panel of speakers that included the Dalai Lama.  During a Q&A session, the Dalai Lama was asked a question that he didn’t answer right away.  After a long silence, the Dalai Lama finally responded, “I don’t know.”  Robinson doesn’t remember what the question was, but that’s not the point.  The point is, the Dalai Lama had the strength of character and self-confidence to say honestly, “I don’t know.”  He didn’t try to fake it or spin it, he just answered truthfully, “I haven’t thought about that before.”  There’s a lesson there for anyone in a leadership position who feels compelled to be the answer person . . . the person who always has the answers and who always knows what to do.  For more on why you shouldn’t be the answer person and why you shouldn’t even try, please continue reading below.

The Power of “I Don’t Know”

We heard a speaker once who commented that CEOs get up in the morning, look in the mirror, and say to themselves, “I wonder if today’s the day . . . the day people discover that I’m not as smart, competent, or knowledgeable as they thought I was.”  Some leaders may make a show of being the go-to guy when problems come up, but in their hearts, they know they don’t have all the answers.  And their followers may make a show of believing their leader has all the answers, but they know it’s a lie.  No one has all the answers all the time.  It’s simply not possible. So why all the posturing?

Some leaders believe that admitting to a gap in their knowledge would be a sign of weakness, but in fact, it’s a sign of strength.  An admission that he or she doesn’t have all the answers builds trust among followers.  It’s a sign that the leader is comfortable with the strengths, abilities, and knowledge that he or she does possess, and is honest about the limits of those strengths and abilities, and the limits of that knowledge.  The leader who tries to put up a front of omnipotence destroys trust because everyone around him or her knows it’s BS.

In the study of group dynamics, there’s a thing called the Messiah Syndrome.  It occurs when there’s something very scary coming . . . maybe a disruptive new technology or a big new competitor . . . and the group doesn’t know what to do.  So the group turns to its leader and says, “Thank God for our leader!  He’ll know what to do.  She will protect us and won’t let anything bad happen to us.”  And so the leader accepts the mantle as the group’s messiah.

You may remember, there was a guy whose people made him their messiah a few thousand years ago, and for him, things didn’t work out all that well.

Here’s the problem if you allow your group to make you its messiah.  The group now depends upon you to protect it, but sooner or later, you’ll stub your toe.  Something will happen that the group thinks you should have prevented.  The group now realizes that you are not the all-knowing, all-seeing, omnipotent, infallible person they thought you were.  You’ve let your followers down.  They trusted you, but you betrayed that trust.  And since they can no longer trust you, it will be very difficult for you to lead them.

Let’s be clear on the difference between a leader and a messiah, because both do have a responsibility to protect their followers from harm.  The difference is, a messiah makes the unspoken, and untenable, promise to followers that he or she alone will keep them safe and protected, no matter what.  A leader, on the other hand, organizes a group into a team, and each team member has a role to play in keeping the group safe and protected.  Collectively then, all the team members are depending on one another for safety and protection, not just on the leader alone.

So how do you maintain your position as leader, but avoid the Messiah Syndrome?

  • Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” When you find yourself in an unfamiliar situation, don’t try to BS your way through it.  Instead, say, “I haven’t ever dealt with this either.  So together, let’s figure it out.”
  • When you make a mistake, own it. Don’t try to make excuses or shift the blame to someone else.  Put on your big boy (or big girl) pants, explain what happened, take ownership of it, and move on.

So do you want to be a genuine leader or a pretend messiah?  We trust your choice will not require a lot of thought.

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