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Simple Concepts: Knowing what you don't know

2nd of 3 in Simple Concepts Series

At one time, brands like Blockbuster and Blackberry were likely confident in their business model. They were dominant in their markets, and they “knew” what they needed to do to maintain success. Or did they? That’s the challenge with “knowing.” Sometimes you know; sometimes you actually don’t. What’s even more challenging is when you don’t even recognize what you don’t know you don’t know.

Most of us have likely encountered the “smartest person in the room.” (eye-roll). What’s puzzling is how successful some of these people are. That is the conundrum we face in leadership with respect to the leaders themselves as well as the development of their teams. We expect our leaders to be knowledgeable, and many leaders tend to reward those that demonstrate high levels of knowledge with promotions and preferred assignments. This often results in individuals afraid to admit that they lack knowledge or skills. The leader who is as comfortable with what they don’t know as with what they do know shows us the power of vulnerability and the effect on innovation and continuous learning.


This simple concept dates back more than 2000 years to the time of Socrates, where he taught Plato, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” Despite its age, it continues to be among the biggest opportunities in our modern society. We tend to reward and recognize “the smartest person in the room” over the truly well-rounded individual that demonstrates as much confidence with what they know as with what they don’t know. This is cause for sounding the alarm.

When someone thinks they know something with 100% confidence, they close their mind to other knowledge in that area. This can not only stifle innovation, but it can also cause teams to be less inclusive. Consider for example, the team trying to recruit more diversity. A mindset that fails to accept new perspectives towards the contribution of the team’s objectives may unintentionally drown out the voices of the minority participants. When the “smartest person in the room” is allowed to have the dominant voice, this often leads to groupthink that goes unchallenged.

There is a reason that the best leaders in the world talk about challenging the status quo. Companies that make all their decisions with a small group of people and limited feedback or challenges from other stakeholders will soon be edged out by competitors who recognize the value of continuous learning.

Which graph represents how you operate? If you thought that the one on the left was the way to establish career success, then consider challenging your own perspective regularly. Even for those areas where you are close to 100% confident of what you know, think about how that knowledge may change over time. What was once true that no longer is? This may not get you branded as “the smartest person in the room,” but then again who wants that?

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