There are three words that can separate a strong leader from an insecure one, and they are as follows: “I don’t know.” It may feel counterintuitive that the person who should have all the answers, often doesn’t — but many books on leadership and management suggest that a good leader should be adept at knowing what they don’t know, rather than blustering their way through a problem. By admitting that more information is needed, a leader’s decision-making process will seem more credible and transparent to their subordinates.
Good leadership is informed decision-making
A Forbes column on this topic quotes Shakespeare: “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” In this sense, a person who says “I don’t know” has the ability to step back and observe themselves objectively, and that includes knowing the motivations, moods, and values that might be influencing their decision-making. This is why self-awareness is considered to be an important leadership skill in project management, as it gives leaders the advantage of thinking before they speak or act, and ensures their decisions are not overly influenced by impulses and moods.
Plus, studies have shown that intellectual humility correlates with actual ability. In one study, participants were asked to predict their ability on a test, and those that were lowest in intellectual humility (which the study authors refer to as “know-it-alls”) were more likely to overestimate how well they did on the test.
Saying “I don’t know” in practice
There are areas where a leader should know, of course, especially if it’s a core competency of the job. A coach who says, “I don’t know” when asked what the next play call should be isn’t going to inspire confidence, for example.
In practice, the not knowing should correlate with new problems or information. In this regard, a leader must also take action to address the problem, either by asking for input from others (which further builds team trust) or making a commitment to the team to gather more information. That’s why “let me get back to you that” or “I will find out more” are useful responses. (And if a decision needs to be made quickly, a leader can at least acknowledge what they don’t know as part of their decision.)
For subordinates, this approach also makes leaders more relatable and enhances their credibility. Saying “I don’t know” and asking for input from the team will also encourage the critical thinking of others, rather than a strict deference to authority.
And lastly, this might seem like an obvious point, but it’s worth stating: People aren’t easily fooled. If you don’t know what you’re talking about, someone will eventually notice.