The Courage to Not KnowFeb 15, 2022
It’s not fear that gets in the way of daring leadership; it’s armor.
When things get tough, do we lean in to vulnerability and get curious, or do we self-protect in ways that move us away from our values?
Having to be the “knower” or always being right is heavy armor. It’s defensiveness, it’s posturing, and, worst of all, it’s a huge driver of bullshit. It’s also very common—most of us have some degree of knower in us. Unfortunately, needing to know everything is pretty miserable for the knowers and everyone around them. It leads to distrust, bad decisions, and unnecessary, unproductive conflict.
It sounds pretty easy to replace the armor of knowing with becoming a curious learner, but for many people the need to be a knower is driven by shame and, for some, even trauma. Being the knower can save people in hard situations, and it’s easy to buy into the belief that being a knower is the only value we bring to relationships and work.
Knowing can also become a culture problem when only some people are valued as knowers. Others don’t speak up because they’re not “senior enough” or it’s “not their place.” In our study on daring leadership, one leader shared that he had been with his new company for six months and had never contributed in a meeting. He was brought in because of his twenty-plus years of experience, yet he was expected to be quiet in the meetings because of cultural norms that valued only the contributions of tenured leaders.
There are three strategies that I’ve seen work to transform always knowing into always learning.
- Name the issue. It’s a tough conversation, but clear is kind: I’d like for you to work on your curiosity and critical thinking skills. You’re often quick with answers, which can be helpful, but not as helpful as having the right questions, which is how you’ll grow as a leader. We can work together on this. Knowers often have a lot of people talking behind their backs, and that’s unkind.
- Make learning “curiosity skills” a priority. Some people may be perceived as naturally curious, and others need to be taught how to be more curious. Don’t assume people aren’t curious because they don’t care. They may not know how to be curious.
- Acknowledge and reward great questions and instances of “I don’t know, but I’d like to find out” as daring leadership behaviors. The big shift here is from wanting to “be right” to wanting to “get it right.”
We define grounded confidence as curiosity + the willingness to rumble with vulnerability + practice. While armor is our greatest barrier to being brave, grounded confidence is the heart of daring leadership.
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