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The Vast Value of “I Don’t Know” Leadership

Updated: Sep 6, 2020

For centuries the human race has been fascinated by the concept of leadership. From ancient mythology to contemporary fiction, we’ve collectively revelled in tales of exceptional and poor leadership alike, and been compulsively drawn to the most spectacular examples of each. 

That fascination has always become particularly apparent during crises. A crisis shines an unforgiving light on ineffective management and a flattering light on the most effective: it’s a sort of litmus test. Indeed, great leaders of history are often defined by the crises they navigated when they were at the pinnacle of power. 

As Joshua Rothman wrote in a 2016 article for The New Yorker: “Without an answering crisis, a would-be leader remains just a promising custodian of potential. (Imagine Lincoln without the Civil War or F.D.R. without the Depression.) Before a leader can pull us out of despair, we have to fall into it. For this reason, a melancholy ambivalence can cling to even the most inspiring stories of leadership.”

With coronavirus we’ve certainly fallen into despair and as such it’s taught us perhaps the most valuable lesson in a generation of what a good leader needs to be like, speak like and think like. 

Countless volumes can be written (and likely will) on how political and corporate leaders performed during the darkest day of the pandemic - what they did well and where they failed. Strategy and communication will be analysed in forensic detail. One conclusion that will likely be drawn, though, is that every leader deemed to have done well shared a single and quite simple characteristic: humbleness. 

The humble CEO is a relatively new figure on the corporate scene. During much of the 20th century, modesty and humility were considered indicators of weakness and fallibility. Ego and confidence were championed as the most enviable personality traits of strong leaders. Overconfidence was applauded and rewarded richly. 

According to Silicon Valley gossip, Steve Jobs approached AT&T about partnering on a new kind of mobile device when he had absolutely no experience in the mobile market whatsoever. But did his confidence work? The answer’s likely sitting in the palm of your hand right now. 

Things have changed, though. Corporate culture has evolved for the better. As Covid-19 subsides and we reflect on the degree to which cooperation, compassion and empathy contributed to getting us through, we should embrace a new type of leadership. One might call it “I don’t know” leadership. 

CEOs are only human. The cult of the overconfident CEO has no place in the 21st century. Every manager has deficiencies and flaws and always will have them. That’s something that’s beyond their control. But what’s entirely within their control, is how to handle them. 

Both as a leader, but also as any employee, there’s an art to being able to reflect on one's own limitations - to understand what resources are needed to be able to do the job we’re meant to.

In the years to come, we should celebrate CEOs who can seek help, ask questions and even admit ignorance. They’ll set an example and be rewarded for their transparency and vulnerability with loyalty and respect.

By charging through crises guided by a steely determination to single handedly triumph and bask in the subsequent glory all alone, rarely ends well. We’ve seen it before and we’ll see it again. But as ever, it’s up to us to learn from our mistakes. The power of acknowledging our limits might just be greater than we think.

Josie Cox

For Workculturati

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