Ignorance vs. Incompetence: Mastering The Leadership Learning Curve

Photo by Adan Garcia via Flickr

It takes about 10 weeks for my students to develop a marketing plan. And 1 second for industry news to make it nearly worthless, unless they respond in time.

It takes 9 months to bring a child into the world. And 1 second for you to realize, you haven't a clue as to how to raise it.

You keep on graduating from grade school to high school and hopefully college and beyond. Every successive phase is new. What came before isn't enough to prepare you for now.

Where did we get the idea that great leaders are like G-d - that they magically know it all?

One need only look at the news to see that leaders (of any kind) can be the smartest, most experienced people in the world. But every situation presents its own unique challenges. To pretend that we walk in with the answers is foolish.

Not knowing is actually the perpetual state of a leader. What distinguishes the competent from the incompetent is what they do with that ignorance.

Great leaders start with admitting they don't know. Then they go into action.

1. Drawing on parallels between the current (new) problem and their existing knowledge and experience, they quickly size up a situation unknown to them.

2. Next they ask good questions, to find out the limits of what their past experience can bring to the table. They bring in expert knowledge until they reasonably understand the goal and the risks.

3. Leaders don't stop at defining the problem well. They create a community passionately dedicated to solving it. They do this by building a network of relationships one at a time, communities of interest, ongoing conversations.

4. Leaders move forward despite knowing they only have partial information. Their moves take into account partial support, meager resources, partly accurate strategy. They focus on building process and forward momentum.

5. Always knowing that they don't know, leaders constantly course-correct. They seek more information, stronger networks, and greater visibility into the external and internal strategic environment and its dynamics. They focus on how the whole ecosystem fits together, and they look microscopically at its intricate moving parts as well.

Have you noticed that few leaders admit they don't know things until after their tenure is over? Nowadays this is an outmoded approach - there is simply too much to know for anyone to credibly assert mastery.

Therefore, by and large, stakeholders are forgiving of a leader who means well, sets forth the vision, and engages them in fixing problems. These include the ones that existed to begin with and the ones brought about invariably by any strategy.

Incompetence is not the same thing as not knowing. It is insane to pretend that you "know it all," or "have it all under control." And yet leaders do this all the time.

There is a terrible fear of being revealed as incompetent. But incompetence is displayed only by pretending omnipotence.

The key to credibility - thinking of all the humble, kind, intelligent leaders I've seen on the one end of the spectrum, and the arrogant asses on the other - is the admission that you are nothing before the only One who knows all. If you don't believe in G-d call it "universal intelligence."

It is G-d who puts the thoughts in our heads and the words in our mouths, either to achieve a mighty victory or a humiliating defeat.

When G-d told Moses to lead the Jews out of Egypt, Moses resisted because he thought he wasn't qualified. He was self-conscious that he had a speech defect, which seemingly made his imperfections all the more obvious.

G-d insisted he do it anyway.

There is a Jewish saying to the effect that broken vessels are all the more beautiful, because they let the light shine in.

To be an effective leader you don't need to be a perfect glass vase, nor should you be. G-d desires the human, the imperfect striving to be better.

Learn to be okay with a perpetual state of not knowing, and perpetually dissatisfied unless you're moving forward toward results.

Incompetence is pretending you're impossibly sure of yourself; leadership is humbly moving forward despite never knowing exactly what's waiting on the other side of your efforts.

As Albert Einstein put it, "If we knew what we were doing it wouldn't be called research, would it?"

No matter who you are, you are the leader of your own life. Approach every challenge as if it were research.

Good luck!

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