A Leader’s Three Most Powerful Words

I don’t know.

I don’t mean I don’t know what a leader’s three post powerful words are.  I mean the words are “I don’t know.”

But wait, that seems crazy.  Aren’t leaders supposed to have the answers?  I don’t know means weakness, indecision, lack of preparation…right?

Not necessarily.  Now of course if a leader answers every question with “I don’t know” there is a problem.  Leaders need to provide answers, but no one has ALL the answers.  “I don’t know” is a leader’s most powerful sentence because it signals the most desirable quality in a leader:  humility.

The best leaders know that attaining positions of authority doesn’t make them any less human.  Recognizing our individual limitations is the beginning of effective leadership.

Leaders know what they know, and more importantly what they don’t know.  By operating from this mindset, they learn how to engage and tap into the complementary strengths of those around them to achieve great things.  A great way to do this is to employ what is perhaps a leader’s second most important sentence:  what do you think?

Humble leaders know that by staying real about who they are they can more effectively inspire passion, buy in and commitment to a shared vision.  Also accepting our limitations creates a culture of taking responsibility for mistakes, understanding that all of us make them and celebrating the accomplishments of others.  Because they are attuned to their own limitations, when making judgments leaders lead with mercy and empathy versus condemnation.

People in leadership position who never use the words “I don’t know” aren’t leaders, they’re posers.

Posers mask insecurity with arrogance.

Posers blame others for their own failures.

Posers exaggerate their connection with top executives to impress or intimidate others.

Posers exaggerate problems at the expense of others so they can position their own inadequate solutions as more successful than they actually are.

Posers focus on positioning themselves instead of exploring possibilities.

Posers are most comfortable playing politics, because they aren’t good at much else.

While it’s a sad truth that there are too many posers in corporate life today, there’s much reason for optimism.  Examples of humble leaders are everywhere and I think there’s a growing realization that the interconnected and matrixed nature of most companies require leaders with the attributes I’m describing.

While I never worked with him personally, Bob Iger exudes this type of leadership.  It’s evident when you read his recent memoir.  I was fortunate to have a small bit of exposure to George Bodenheimer, the former president of ESPN.  Anyone who has ever met George would agree he personifies these qualities as well.

There are many other examples, men and women alike, from a diverse array of backgrounds and experiences.  What that teaches us is that leadership is a skill that can be learned by anyone.  It starts with three simple words:  I don’t know.

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