Leadership as ‘not-knowing’

You might have seen the following clip on YouTube. It was an internet sensation some years ago. It came to mind today in relation to what lesson it might have for us about leadership.

Imagine if this was a group of leaders in an organisation going about, say devising a strategic plan. From this clip, we can see how easy it is to miss the elephant, or in this case the gorilla, in the room. Even worse, from a people management perceptive, we didn’t even notice that someone actually left the room! This experiment demonstrates that a ‘knowing’ approach to leadership is not very helpful when it comes to messy organisational problems and puzzles, particularly those we haven’t encountered before.

We live in a highly complex world in which no one individual can know everything. Indeed, the human condition is more about ‘not-knowing’ rather than ‘knowing’. If this is axiomatic, we really need to develop a model of leadership based on ‘not-knowing’. In a book written in 2004, James Surowiecki suggests that the answer might be to tap into the Wisdom of Crowds. It is based on the author’s thesis that groups are remarkably intelligent and often smarter than the smartest people in them. At one level, this is common sense, which is why some leaders have been intuitively surrounding themselves with talented people for years. However, a communal model is less about hiring brainiacs and more about harnessing the intelligence and creativity of everyone. Groups do not need to be dominated by exceptionally intelligent people in order to be smart. To put this into practice, we must first change our mental model of organising by ditching the idea that leadership is about ‘telling’ people what to do because managers know best, to a model based on ‘asking’ because we don’t. Inquiry, especially appreciative inquiry is key to bringing out, coordinating and unleashing the wisdom of groups.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that Ashridge Business School has come up with a Not Knowing leadership manifesto. Kudos to them!

  1. Say ‘I don’t know’ more often.
  2. Don’t search for the answers, live the questions.
  3. Be a beginner at something.
  4. Let go of control, engage with ‘what is’.
  5. Learn by watching, listening and waiting.
  6. Tap into all your senses. Your body is a gateway to new learning.
  7. Entertain doubt, cultivate humility.
  8. Challenge blind reliance on authority and expertise.
  9. Cultivate a mindset of exploration and experimentation.
  10. Embrace mistakes and failures.



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