Sunday, December 11, 2011

Are You Happy to Admit That You Don’t Know, What You Thought You Knew?

I remember some wise words given to me by the head of the South African College of Applied Psychology many years ago, when he told me that “it’s not what we know we know; or what we know we don’t know that causes us problems in life – it’s when we think we know things we don’t actually know, where the problems begin”.

Being able to be honest with ourselves about what we really know and what we think we know should not only a requirement of humility, but a genuine requirement of effective leadership in any role.

In fact most of the major leadership disasters through the centuries have been when the leader was too arrogant to realise that they didn’t really know, what they thought they did – leading them to make incorrect decisions that led to disaster. The worst fact behind the arrogance is even after the disaster – these individuals often wouldn’t admit they made a mistake. This doesn’t just relate to leaders in business, but leaders everywhere, including the role of parents.

To put it all in perspective a good example comes from Donald Rumsfeld who said “reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don't know we don't know” and if that statement is clear enough he also said “Secretary Powell and I agree on every single issue that has ever been before this administration except for those instances where Colin's still learning.” – Absolutely classic and it’s scary to think that this comes from a former Defense Secretary of the USA, yet this shows the true extent of someone being too arrogant to admit what they really don’t know.

It was Confucius who said “real knowledge is to know the extent of ones ignorance” words of wisdom that should be part of everyone’s value set – yet does the pressure to appear successful encourage many people to ‘defend’ their ignorance rather than embrace it and learn from it?

One of the classic examples of leaders thinking that they knew something they didn’t is encapsulated in an 1876, internal memo within Western Union that read “this telephone has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.” Classic – a real example of arrogant ignorance sending an organisation down the wrong path.

Although this basic principle of being honest about what we only think we might know applies to everyone from teenagers to pensioners – the most important place for people to be honest about what they really know, and what they just think they know, is at the board level of organisations. These are the strategic leaders of the organisation, who should be identifying future opportunities and defining the vision and culture of the organisation. This will never be done effectively if, at this level, the strategic leaders are assuming things that they simply don’t know.

Today’s leaders need to be honest with themselves if they want to really optimise their organisations future growth and set the example for others to follow. The ability to be honest about what we do and do not know is not only a fundamental requirement for effective leadership, but a basic requirement in order to earn the respect of others.

It's a principle we all have the power to adopt immediately - since if we can't be honest with ourselves, who can we be honest with....

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