Wise Leaders know they don’t need to know everything

It was Donald Rumsfeld, former US Defence Secretary, who brought to prominence the idea of known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns.

There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

At first glance this may seem a bit tortured, but at the heart of this logical mantra is a key element of wise leadership – to which I will return later.

But first let us consider the aspiring and ambitious leader. If aiming for the top of a high performing organisation their trajectory will be characterised by an ability to absorb, understand and apply knowledge in all its intellectual, technical and practical forms. That ability will be recognised throughout their life by distinguished grades, honours and degrees.

As this person moves into the world of work they will set about acquiring more knowledge, which further distinguishes them from their peers. Moving up the ladder of success they collect and gather more and more knowledge, which gives them an edge over those who would compete for the most senior roles. Until at last they reach the top of the tree – having proved themselves to be the first amongst equals in terms of their ‘knowledge’ and expertise.

But what if, just at that very moment of topping out, it was suggested to them that their continued habit of collecting and acquiring knowledge was actually a self-limiting factor on their effectiveness in their senior role? How easy do think it would be for such an individual to suddenly say to his senior colleagues “I don’t need to know that”.

Such an idea runs in complete contradiction to the traditional notion – first promulgated by Francis Bacon in the 16th century – that “knowledge is power”.

For many leaders this concept still tacitly informs much of their leadership behaviour. Such has been their mastery of their subject on the way up the corporate ladder that the notion of not knowing everything that happens beneath them is a complete anathema to them.

I have witnessed leaders throughout my career who betray their stated intention to empower others in the organisation by an overwhelming desire to ‘know’ every detail about their colleagues’ responsibilities.

It is this learned behaviour that lies at the core of micro management and over scrutiny – and all of the associated negative consequences for the organisation.

In the words of Donald Rumsfeld’s such leaders can only operate in a world of known knowns, i.e. They need to have a detailed knowledge of everything that’s going on in their organisation.

In many senses such leaders become knowledge ‘gatekeepers’ – for if they don’t understand a concept or process due to its complexity or variation from the ‘known’ norm then it is extremely unlikely that it will be approved.

Contrast this with the wise leader who understands the limiting impact attempting to know everything.

The ancient Chinese philosophers recognised this folly when they reflected upon the ability of wise leaders to ‘let go of knowledge’.

“To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom remove things every day.” Lao Tzu

Wise leaders can live with the truth that they cannot ‘know’ everything. They understand not only the debilitating impact upon themselves, but upon the organisation.

Wise leaders, then, can live with ‘known unknowns’, “I don’t need to know that”. They can also with live ‘unknown knowns’, they entrust others to share information with them if the holder of the knowledge deems it necessary.

And they can even live with ‘unknown unknowns’ knowing that there will always be things out there that will impact on their organisation about which no one can predict or be aware. Unlike their ‘knowing’ counterpart who would never admit to such a lapse,

The wise leader is still a learner but not a magpie who collects every passing bauble. Wise leaders make sophisticated judgements about what they need to know and why they need to know it. They recognise the empowering nature of not being the acknowledged expert in a field of their own business – entrusting others to ‘know’ on their behalf.

In this regard they are continually deciding what knowledge they can ‘let go’ in order to allow them to focus on those areas that will have the greatest long term impact upon the health and well being of the organisation – especially when dealing with the inevitable ‘unknown unknown’.

I’ll leave the last word with Confucius – who seemed to capture this so perfectly over 2,500 years ago:

“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” Confucius


The Ceannas features of ‘wise’ leadership:

1. Has a capacity to look at issues from a variety of perspectives;

2. Consistently and courageously do the ‘right thing’;

3. Wise Leaders ‘know’ they don’t know everything;

4. Combines a vision of the future with knowledge of the past;

5. Recognises and understands their own human frailties and personal biases;

6. Can simplify complex and complicated problems and reduce them to their very essence;

7. Travels without the burden of having to prove their wisdom;

8. Balances issues towards the ‘common good’;

9. Sees layers of connections when others see discrete issues;

10. Engages their mind in union with their humanity.

Copyright Ceannas Ltd 2016