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It’s OK to be an Ignorant Leader

Did he really just say that?

I was sitting in my new boss’s office. I had just been moved to a new position which I was not very excited about and was in the office for the traditional “meet the boss” session. I had been snatched from a job I really loved to take this position and was not very happy.

My boss described several urgent challenges that my new team was facing and that he expected me to quickly address those challenges. He went on to explain that my predecessor had been removed by the most senior executive because of his inability to address those challenges. So, here I was, in a job I didn’t want, with challenges that seemed almost insurmountable, replacing someone who had been fired for not meeting those challenges. No pressure!

Then the boss said the words that would make it just a little easier. “I don’t have much experience with these issues myself and I need you to help me learn.” I was surprised because such an admission was very rare.

Over the next few weeks and months it became obvious that no one outside my team really understood what the team was doing or why those big challenges weren’t so easily fixed. My predecessor’s main failure was in not keeping his bosses informed. The team had actually been making progress on dealing with the challenges they faced.

My boss was true to his word and carefully listened when I brought him information. His ability to admit what he didn’t know and willingness to learn made him a great advocate for the team and allowed him to better provide the support we needed.

A few years later I found myself in a new job again. This time I was responsible for a large complex organization. I was in the same position as my former boss had been; responsible for challenges I didn’t completely understand. Following his example, I gathered my leadership team and told them that I wasn’t an expert in what they did. But, I promised to learn all I could and expected them to keep me informed. That was the only way I would be able to support them.

There’s an old saying that ignorance is simply “not knowing.” Stupidity is acting on ignorance. The problem for many leaders is a difficulty admitting to ignorance. Will teams think less of us if we admit to some area of weakness? The truth is that your team will quickly discover what you really know and don’t know and will actually think less of you if you try to hide your ignorance. Leading doesn’t mean being the smartest person in the room. The most successful leaders find the smartest people in the room.

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