A real show of strength: “I Don’t Know”

“The Big Trick is turning “I don’t know” into a show of strength, rather than an acknowledgment of weakness. Leaders do have a “weakness”: They really don’t “know”. By what leaders offer isn’t knowledge – it’s a smidgen of wisdom and (above all) spirit. The spirit that goes into having the raw nerve to unleash the passion and unleash the talent of others. In fact, that’s the ultimate “toughness” of leadership.”

Tom Peters, Leadership Essentials

This is not my lament on the lack of leadership in professional practice. I have done enough finger pointing, knowing full well that no one is listening.

We all know that lawyers don’t like to make mistakes. Who does? But take a step back from the gasp of “I have screwed up” and ask yourself how many times you have heard someone say “I don’t know”? Let’s face it if you are paid to come up with an answer, any answer, then these words are an anathema to any sane-thinking person. Just imagine saying that to a client!

But therein lies the issue.

It is a cultural blind spot and cuts to the very top. Can you imagine a managing partner uttering those three words?

But move slightly away from the (practice of law) coal face – perhaps into the entrepreneurial realm – and this is where you really start to see the result of trying to know it all. Right now given the anemic state of the market, no one has all the answers and in some cases you have run out of ideas.

There is a force multiplier in being brave enough to drop the pretence and say “I don’t know”. It is not an automatic sign of weakness.

Most meetings you attend there is a presumption that everyone is expected to have an opinion. But normally the dominant personality holds the floor either by dint of their acknowledged position or because no wants the hassle to take them on. But perhaps by uttering these words might just act to disarm the normal barriers that stop things really happening. It will certainly open things up if the person who has, up to now, posited all the answers sits back and nonchalantly says: “I don’t know”.

As they say the proof of the pudding is …

For me it speaks of … we are entering the unknown and we better bring our best game to the party. It is not just a case of following top-down, command and control orders but being open to change.

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