The very idea that ignorance can be a leadership virtue seems absurd. We’re conditioned, understandably so, to believe in the power of knowing. Training in your organization’s culture, being aware of colleagues’ work styles and priorities, knowing how to devise and implement plans: these positive aspects of the fear-based world are inextricably linked to effective leadership. But there are times when knowledge gets in the way.
When you or your organization are looking for innovative approaches, the institutional knowledge and status quo thinking that is so important elsewhere can serve to limit your options. When you don’t know what you don’t know – often referred to as “unconscious incompetence” – you’re not dependent upon conventional wisdom. Not knowing what you don’t know encourages questions, rather than a search for answers. Not knowing what you don’t know expands possibilities, rather than limiting you to what’s already known and accepted.
One great example of that is the story of business leader, Sarah Blakely. In a recent interview on CNN’s Global Public Square, Sarah told the story of phoning a major department store buyer directly, as opposed to connecting the conventional way at trade shows. Her “ignorance” of standard practice got her the meeting that eventually turned her $5, 000 investment into the billion dollar company, Spanx. Not knowing what she didn’t know – a phrase Sarah used herself – made all the difference. Sara also expounded on the value of re-framing failure as an asset in this article, a topic I’ve written about previously (Failure is a Gift: Who Knew?).
I can think of more than one time when I launched into a leadership challenge with passion, but without awareness of just how little I knew about what I was in for! Knowing the risks and obstacles may have deterred me, but my lack of specific knowledge invariably turned out to be an asset (when it didn’t, I always had the opportunity to learn from my mistakes). Leadership summons us to act, sometimes from a place of knowledge and prior experience, sometimes from a place of passion and curiousity.
The point is that balanced leadership draws from both the fear-based and love-based worlds. We need knowledge, plans and drive to propel our organizations forward. But we also need vulnerability, passion and yes, occasionally “ignorance” and curiosity when novelty, innovation and fresh approaches are called for.