The Best Leaders Use These 3 Hard Words

by  Lisa Kohn  |  Leadership Development
The Best Leaders Use These 3 Hard Words

I see it with my clients. I see it with my colleagues. I see it in myself. It’s damn hard to admit when we don’t know something. Somewhere along the line, we came to believe that being a leader meant being sure. Knowing the answers. Having the best and rightest solution to every problem.

It’s not true.

The strongest leaders I see are the ones who admit what they don’t know and what they’re not sure of, and who reach out to others for opinions, advice, and perspective. But why is that so hard to do?

Why have we come to expect our leaders to be infallible, and ourselves to be infallible? It’s a huge – and impossible – mantle to carry.

It might be our culture based on independence, a pioneering spirit, and “just do it-ness,” but it almost doesn’t matter where it comes from. What matters is our ability to throw that constraining belief aside and start afresh, and to be willing, as leaders, to take a deep breath and say, “I don’t know.” We need to:

  • Admit when we don’t have the answer – It takes a bit of willing to be vulnerable and to not appear omniscient, but we have to acknowledge our lack of surety and knowledge, and let that not be a bad thing.
  • Surround ourselves with smart peopleEffective leaders know that while they don’t know everything, there are people who know the things they don’t. The best leaders make sure that they have smart advisors, that the people around them know at least as much as they do, if not more.
  • Be open to other perspectivesHaving smart people and ideas around you doesn’t help if you’ll ask for – and then reject – other opinions. Successful leaders know that not only do they not know everything, but that they also don’t always know best.
  • Find people who’ve walked this road before Experience is one of the best teachers. If we’re faced with a problem we can’t figure out, chances are there is someone somewhere who has dealt with the same – or at least similar – situation. We’re much better equipped to figure a way out if we turn to someone who has “been there, done that.”
  • But remember that experience may blind us to innovation While experience is beneficial, it also can cause us to not see the differences, and nuances, in the current situation. It’s a best practice to trust your understanding of a situation, based on a record of success, and then at least once, second-guess your understanding to make sure you’re not falling into ruts.
  • Just say it Jump in. Take the plunge. Be willing to risk it. Say, “I don’t know,” and see what happens. Does the world fall apart? Do you lose the respect of others? (If so, you probably never had it in the first place.)

The strongest leaders I know are the ones who know what they know, and admit what they don’t know and what they’re not sure of. The strongest leaders I’ve seen reach out to others for opinions, advice, and perspective. They consider it, weigh it against their knowledge and truths, and make a Thoughtful decision.

The strongest leaders I know are willing to say, “I don’t know,” and look for the answers.

Have the words “I don’t know” played a role in your leadership journey? Tell me about it in the comments!
Photo Credit: Vlue/123RF

About The Author

Articles By lisa-kohn
Lisa Kohn is an accomplished leadership consultant, executive coach, author, and keynote speaker with a strong business background and a creative approach. She has over 25 years of experience, including over 15 years direct consulting, coaching, and speaking with Fortune 500 clients in areas of leadership, communication styles, managing change, interpersonal and team dynamics, strategy, and execution.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Susan Fignar  |  19 Jan 2017  |  Reply

Thanks, Lisa – excellent points / reminders to speak the truth when we don’t know something. As a society, we have become so hard on ourselves and focus on perfection instead of excellence. I don’t know everything, and I don’t want to know everything.

Lisa Kohn  |  19 Jan 2017  |  Reply

Hi Susan – Thank you. I love the idea of excellence instead of perfection. As a “recovering perfectionist” that really works for me. I don’t want to know everything either, and I know we don’t have to pretend we do. Thanks again.

Chris Pirlot  |  19 Jan 2017  |  Reply

I never say, “I don’t know” by itself in the workplace. If I do say it, it is followed by “but I can (and will) find out and get back to you.” I believe it actually builds trust and respect for my capabilities.

Chris Pirlot
DPW Operations Director
Green Bay, WI

Lisa Kohn  |  19 Jan 2017  |  Reply

Thank you Chris. I agree with what you’ve said, and also there are times I may not be able to find out and get back to someone, and I say, “I don’t know. Please tell me what you know so that we can figure it out together.” Thank you again.

Jane  |  24 Jan 2017  |  Reply

These are all good points and they will work to make your team stronger together and become more knowledgeable as individuals – which is then an asset in other areas. I used to have a manager who purposely said he didn’t know, then asked some pointed questions to get us all thinking about how we could learn whatever the topic was. At the time I was on a system testing team and we had to learn state regulations and things like how reciprocity worked among states.

Lisa Kohn  |  24 Jan 2017  |  Reply

Thank you Jane. I like the idea of a manager who would purposefully say they didn’t know in order to help the rest of us step up and learn more.

Tricia Trzybinski  |  24 Jan 2017  |  Reply

I agree with all the comments above. We should not fear not knowing everything – the only way to learn and grow is to admit your limitations and to be willing to stretch to learn more. By admitting you don’t know everything you may be giving another person a chance to shine and stretch themselves too. Isn’t that really what a great leader should do?

Lisa Kohn  |  24 Jan 2017  |  Reply

Thank you Tricia. In my mind, that is exactly what a great leader should do. I love the idea of giving another person a chance to shine and stretch.

Lynn Reecer  |  15 Feb 2017  |  Reply

As a sole-owner and President of a boutique real estate company I have what I call my own, private advisory board of amazing experts at the top of their game in all aspects from finance to HR but one-on-one. They are all so busy that it would be impossible to meet all together with me at the same time four times a year; impossible for them and for me to plan! So I just pay them for them time and meet with them either regularly or on an as-needed basis. And it works amazingly well for me. I don’t know what I would do without the 5-6 of my functional experts and friends. My start-up went from 0-$91M in sales in 6 years, creating the number 1 ranked agent team in our MLS system too 4 years in a row. Just met with one last night over a huge hiring need I have now. Great article. So true. I know where my expertise lies and where it doesn’t! So I go to the pros who tell me what I should consider.

Lisa Kohn  |  16 Feb 2017  |  Reply

Hi Lynn,

I love your story. Thank you for sharing. We need to go with the pros who know. Thanks, Lisa

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