Leaders Know What They Don’t Know


“People chronically misappraise the limits of their own knowledge; that’s one of the most basic parts of human nature. Knowing the edge of your circle of competence is one of the most difficult things for a human being to do. Knowing what you don’t know is much more useful in life and business than being brilliant.”

These wise words came from one of the most successful businessmen most of us have never heard of: Charles T. Munger, the 90-year old Vice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway and Warren Buffett’s right-hand man.

As the leader of your business, there’s an implicit expectation for you to know everything and “get it right” most of time—if not all the time. So muttering the words, “I don’t know,” can be an extraordinarily humbling and frightening experience for a leader to come to grips with. It might even be unsettling to those company stakeholders that hear it!

We all (should) know that there are some things we do not know. In the real world, no one will have all the answers, all the time. And when a leader is able to confidently say, “I don’t know,” and then quickly move to finding an answer, the stronger that leader (and everyone around them) becomes.

Here are 3 ways to turn “I don’t know” into an opportunity to lead, and to become a better leader:

1. Learn From Others

More often than not, the challenges you face in business are not unique. Chances are, someone else has already faced the same (or a very similar) situation and has the kind of experience that will help you.

OK, well how do I find that person?

Instead of thinking about the person, it’s the experience you want to focus on. This approach will help you avoid the hucksters who are long on ideas but short on real-world experience.

Seek counsel from someone who’s intimately familiar with the situation you’re facing. The best advice typically comes from others who have personally faced and dealt with the issue at hand—even if the advice is, “Don’t do what I did.”

As my father has told me, you can always learn something from others, as long as you’re willing to learn. Stay humble, be teachable, and seek to learn from others.

2. Ask Questions

Leaders know what they don’t know. They also ask a lot of questions.

Once you’ve identified the person(s) you’re taking counsel from, ask them questions. The more in-depth questions you ask, the more valuable the information you will receive. Continue the dialogue and strive to dig deeper. Understand the “why” behind their advice—what made them do what they did. Have they advised others in similar situations? If so, what was the outcome? Looking back, would they have done something differently? So on and so forth.

Again, stay humble and be teachable. Don’t feel threatened by exposing your lack of experience or knowledge on a subject or situation. Embrace it as an opportunity to get smarter and embark on a new way of leading and solving problems.

3. Make Mistakes

Even after you’ve sought counsel, asked questions, and received advice, be prepared to make mistakes. Accept the fact that as you make more and more decisions, you are probably going to get a few wrong. The key, however, is to fail fast.

In most situations, failures will provide feedback almost immediately. Quickly seek to understand what didn’t work and swiftly move on to the next possible course of action. Embrace your mistakes as teachable moments and when you do fail (because we all do), gather the facts, re-calibrate, and try again—as quickly as possible given the situation.

Leading and making decisions is never risk free, but that’s the thrill of it. Take solace in knowing there are some things you can do to improve your outcomes, starting with knowing what you don’t know.

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Will Adams

Will Adams

Will Adams is the GM for Small Business Services for GoSmallBiz.com. Will leads the company’s efforts in serving small business owners and their employees through consulting, software, education, employee training, and advocacy. Will is also the co-founder of a successful Software as a Service (SaaS) business that currently serves small museums and family offices throughout North America. In addition to his business interests, Will serves on the board of Atlanta Children’s Foundation, connecting individuals, organizations, and resources to meet the needs of children in foster care.