afraid you don’t have all the answers? try productive stupidity!

by | Apr 6, 2017 | Leadership

Do you believe leaders need to know what they’re doing? That they need to get it right first time? Do you feel uncomfortable yourself when you don’t have all the answers?

So what if knowledge could be a hindrance rather than a help to successful leadership?

The importance of stupidity

I recently came across a great article entitled “The importance of stupidity in scientific research” by US Professor Martin A. Schwartz. Whilst Schwartz is talking about the field of science in particular, what he says has wisdom for us in our approach to work and life.

He talks about how doing well at school and college means getting the right answers in tests. If you know the “right” answers, you do well and you get to feel clever.

Yet a pHd is whole different ball game because the idea is that you frame questions and conduct experiments which lead to new discoveries. And that means embracing the unknown : “We can’t be sure whether we’re asking the right question or doing the right experiment until we get the answer or the result”.

I love his idea of “productive stupidity”, the idea that focussing on the questions rather than the answers means we put ourselves in the position of being ignorant, but in service of learning and breaking new ground.

How does this apply to leadership in organisations?

How do we progress and innovate if we don’t let go of the safety of knowledge? Knowledge has its roots in the past and there is an implication of an absolute truth. If we only repeat what we know and have experienced, how do we move on?

One of my clients is responsible for taking his organisation from the old world into the new, essential if their industry is to continue to be relevant and in demand.

He has found it challenging to execute his change strategy when he doesn’t know whether it’s “right” or not and when he’s afraid of not knowing what will happen next. His organisation don’t need him to know – they need him to make decisions and keep leading them into the future, even when he can’t see what’s on the road in front of him, and to adjust course as opportunities and obstacles emerge.

Letting go of the idea of a “right” way of doing things means letting go of the belief that what’s got you here today may well not be what will get you to the next place on your journey.

Brexit will need great questions before great answers

Brexit is the perfect example of uncharted territory where noone has knowledge or experience. The only precedent is the exit of 3 former territories of EU members. Yes, Theresa May has a “track record” in government, but words that have come into play regarding her fitness for conservative party leader are “courage”, “singlemindedness”, “respected”, “can fight her corner”.

None of those involves knowing, but they are qualities which will support forward movement towards the goal of taking Britain to a future outside the EU.

What if you were to embrace the unknown?

It takes alot of courage to say, “I don’t know”. Especially when you’re a leader of a team or organisation where people are looking to you for guidance, where you’re visible and subject to public critique for the way you do things.

Yet it’s not just about embracing ignorance. What if asking questions of your organisation led to a better solution? Getting curious means canvassing more ideas, different ways of thinking about an issue, and the added bonus of your people feeling valued and empowered.

Leadership brings great responsibility, but with it comes the opportunity to harness the collective talent and potential of a large number of people rather than just telling them what to do.

What do you bring as a leader aside from knowledge?

Leadership is so much more than knowledge. Here are some questions you may like to ask yourself to explore the value you bring as a leader aside from technical competence.

  • Why was I given this leadership role?
  • What am I known for? What are my strengths?
  • What is the problem I’m here to solve?
  • What’s the question?

Here’s to productively stupid leadership!

What do you think?

Related posts :
are you afraid of being found out?
want more time to lead? 5 things to let go of
what does it take to be an inspiring leader?
what would a wise person do?

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Alison Reid is an experienced executive coach who helps senior managers and directors lead with confidence and step-change their influence and impact. She works with them 1-1, empowering them to focus on what matters, communicate with impact and stay calm under pressure so they can lead themselves and others to great results. She's the author of Unleash Your Leadership : How to Worry Less and Achieve More. Download an extract or buy the book.

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