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The Not Knowing Leader

In Leadership Development programs, we often encourage leaders to be more “Coach-like” in their interactions, to not simply provide an answer or direction but to be curious, dig deeper and to have people come up with their own answers as much as possible. This approach creates challenges for a lot of leaders for many reasons.

In his book “The Book of Not Knowing”, Peter Ralston writes: “Simply wanting to know an answer or requesting information is not a true question. Questioning as a genuine and powerful activity is real wondering – dwelling on and wondering about a subject, and being open to the possibility of realizing something about it that you do not now know. Such profound questioning remains unattached to any answer or outcome. Without the power of questioning, there is only knowing. With only knowing, there is no question and so no discovery, no insight, no learning, no mystery and no experience of the authenticity of simply “being”. Questioning demands real wondering, and wondering demands not-knowing.”

I often notice leaders latching onto the coaching jargon we’ve provided rather than the much, much deeper intent behind it. One example of this is when people start using “I’m curious” as an automatic sentence starter because they’ve been given that as a tool and told that being curious is good. However, “I’m really curious as to why that is important to you” and truly, actually BEING curious has quite a different impact than “I’m curious why you keep doing that” which really just replaces “Why”, with the same impact – judgment.

When I read this passage in Peter Ralston’s book it highlighted again for me that what is missing is being open to possibility and welcoming the not-knowing place. In our society, we are positively reinforced for knowing. If we know the answer, that makes us smart. If we know lots of stuff, are vocal about the stuff we know and people notice, we get promoted and get to download our greater knowledge to those around us. This becomes problematic as we evolve (I’m just hoping we actually do) out of command and control into innovation and creativity. If one is promoted because of what one knows, then surely the only way you are effective and get to keep your job is by continuing to know. How can not-knowing be a good leadership skill?

Yet, increasingly, this is becoming a vital leadership skill. Innovation and creativity are being asked for and even demanded. We don’t have the answers and pretending we do is not going to get us, our organizations, or our planet new solutions. Being in the receptive state of not-knowing may just be the answer you were looking for. Try approaching your day from a place of not-knowing and see what you discover.

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