Voltaire once wrote, “Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”
I hope Voltaire is right, because a lot of my experience of what little success I have had as an entrepreneur has come out of my supreme ignorance and inexpert background in my business.
I founded an elite executive sales outsourcing company called Corporate Rain International over 20 years ago without a priori experience in sales or any education in business—not even a basic college course in economics. My company is an accidental creation. I just made the thing up. I have a business and a life based on “I don’t know,” a business of improvisations. As to having any formal qualifications to lead a company, I have none. In that sense I am a fake and a fraud. Yet my firm has lasted and succeeded.
I’ve been thinking about this since I published my book The Poetry of Small Business: An Accidental Entrepreneur’s Search For Meaning last year. I’ve done a number of interviews about the book and invariably I’m introduced as an “expert” which fills me with unease.
Actually, what I am is a guy who has responded continually, day-after-day and year-after-year, to constant quotidian business conundrums with the simple response of “I don’t know.” Let’s figure it out.” Kinda like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland suddenly saying, “Hey, gang. I know what we’ll do. Let’s put on a show.”
God, I wish I was an expert. A knower. What I am is an unsystematic autodidact.
Responding to questions with “I don’t know” is often taken as a sign of incompetence. People want to know the secret sauce, a certainty they can take into their own lives and leadership, dammit. Yet leading from ambiguity and personal uncertainty has some real advantages in a business world that increasingly values the strengths of empathetic leadership over command-and-control absolutes. And this applies in spades to creating a robust entrepreneurial culture.
So, can a whole company, a whole culture, a whole career, a whole life be based on the vulnerability implicit in frequently admitting “I don’t know”? Well, in my case, yes.
Here are some advantages of leading from uncertainty.
- It creates community. Nothing binds a group more certainly than admitting common frailty and the need for others. It is a basis for most religions. It is the basis for Alcoholics Anonymous. To say, “I don’t know” is admitting we are not and will never be God.
- It encourages creativity. If the boss shares her honesty and uncertainty, it gives courage and permission to everyone to be imperfect, to fail, to be wrong—and also to succeed with the outrageous new.
- It creates leadership credibility. If a leader can sometimes admit “I don’t know,” it creates trust in that leader and encourages honesty for all corporate associates.
- It reduces corporate fear. If the boss leads from admitted uncertainty, it frees employees to concentrate more fully on their work, on bringing their “A” game and their whole non-rational intuition to solving communal puzzles.
- It helps personal development. An “I don’t know” culture opens all corporate citizens to honestly ask for help. People actually like to help. They actually often feel honored to be asked to teach something or guide an uncertain colleague. It builds relationships. It builds personal honesty.
- It encourages humility. Humility is a real business skill. A salubrious quality. It saves us from smug overconfidence and opens our heart to the new.
- It encourages a culture of ethics and truth.
- It creates meaning. It takes effort to go beyond the immediate and the obvious. Leadership’s sincere and open search for integrated solutions, based in mission and culture, gives permission for every corporate citizen to look to deeper long-term truth, both personally and corporately.
All this is not to say that ignorance is bliss. Ignorance is to be assiduously remediated and overcome. Obviously. But ultimately admitting “I don’t know” when appropriate is really a statement of power and centered leadership.
As Greek historian and general Thucydides put it, “Ignorance is bold. Knowledge reserved.” Thanks Thucydides.