The 5 for 5 blog – Knowing what you know you don’t know

21 Mar

Photo May 15, 10 08 40 PM

In July of 2010, I had the opportunity to take on a much larger leadership opportunity. The company I was working for was splitting into two companies: my boss at the time would go with one side of the business and lead a team, I would go with the other and lead the same function. With all of the excitement and opportunity of the new role, one thought stuck in my mind: I couldn’t be the same leader as my boss.

He was a great leader, which in and of itself was a tough enough act to follow. But it was his connections that I knew was one of his strongest capabilities. He had cultivated connections over many years of leading across several business segments. He was incredibly skilled at engaging leaders, internal and external, to collaborate and deliver the results the business needed. He also had an amazing grasp of details; I struggled to understand how he could retain so much information.

As I transitioned into my new role, I didn’t have the years to cultivate a deep knowledge of cost models or to develop a vast network of contacts. No, in taking the new role I had to learn one of the most important leadership lessons I ever learned: knowing that I know that I don’t know everything. And that was ok, because to build a new team it had to be built on trust. I would count on my leaders in each region to develop the first line relationships and I would lean on them for their expertise in each area.

Knowing that you don’t know each and every working detail in the organization can be unnerving to leaders. We have written on the blog before about feeling like an imposter (, which is one the main ways that not knowing can manifest itself. But if you are willing to be vulnerable and embrace the idea that you know that you know you don’t know, it can be exactly what you need to grow yourself and your team. Here are a few things I believe are benefits of not knowing everything

  • It stretches your next level leaders to grow in their confidence – If you are managing every detail for one of your manager’s they will never grow to “walk on their own”. Being open with your team about trusting them to develop relationships and get into the issues, will stretch them. If they understand they have just enough rope, they will be willing to test their limits/
  • You focus on the bigger picture strategies that you miss starting at the minutiae – This is the big dichotomy of leadership: how can you possibly have a vision of where the organization can grow to if you are starting at the details at your feet. Vision and strategy require trust. Empowering your team will free your cognitive capacity to focus on spotting the trends and new ideas that will enable your team to better support the business.
  • It allows you to have a beginner’s mind – A great opportunity of not knowing everything, is the ability to ask great questions. While I am personally still working on this skill, often the leader is the first person to see the team’s strategies and thoughts on potential decisions. Having the beginner’s mind, by not being the expert, creates an opportunity to ask great questions in a constructive environment. This not only enables you to learn something new, but challenges your team to think creatively as well.
  • Stay connected through values, not details – Certainly measure what is important, but instill the values you want them to embrace. It is the shared values of the team that are in your mind and your team’s even when you can’t be together. Your values will be the north star for every decision they need to make.

One point to make clear: there is a difference between not knowing and never knowing. You abdicate your responsibility as a leader when you avoid tough topics under the guise of this idea. As mentioned above, part of your role is to be curious. Spending time to learn from your team will build their confidence and your understanding of new topics. And like John Wooden said:

“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

Here are this week’s 5 for 5 articles:

This is going to be awesome – by Laura Vanderkam – via


Show your work – by Seth Godin – via @thisissethsblog

Writing Your Own Rules – by Hannah Brencher – via Holstee

Multitasking: Giving the World an Advantage it Shouldn’t Have – by and via Farnam Street blog

4 New Ways to Look at a Difficult Problem – by Todd Henry – via Inc.

All the best, kevin

One thought on “The 5 for 5 blog – Knowing what you know you don’t know

  1. Love the John Wooden quote Kev! It’s like letting a little air out of the balloon better known as our head! Comes in handy from time to time! Thanks for the reminder.

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