The liberating power of saying “I don’t know”

It’s how the best conversations start

Boss asking an employee what he thinks should be done

(Peter Arkle)

Sir Howard Stringer is done with having all the answers. In a recent keynote address, the former Sony CEO was asked about the likelihood that Time Inc.­—whose board he just joined—will succeed in an increasingly ruthless media environment. His answer was one of shocking candour: “It’s a real tricky one,” he said. “I don’t know if we can pull it off.” Surprising? Yes. A sign he’s losing it as a leader? Quite the contrary.

That the boss is supposed to have all the answers is a cornerstone of hierarchical capitalism, and it frames both the behaviours and personas of legions of leaders. “Within the business world, there’s a general view that your job is to be an expert,” explained economist Steven Levitt in a recent Freakonomics podcast. “No matter how much you have to fake or how much you are making it up, you should give an answer and hope for the best afterwards.”

But the time has come to ditch our aversion to uncertainty. In 2014, a growing number of experts suggest that execs who openly admit their knowledge gaps not only make better leaders but may also run more successful companies.

One reason has to do with credibility. Rather than turn us into a society of know-it-alls, the Internet age has made us more keenly aware of what we don’t know. And that, says Joanna Piros, a Vancouver-based communications coach who teaches at Sauder School of Business, makes people leery of those who profess omniscience. “We’re in a knowledge economy,” she explains. “Leaders today can’t possibly understand every process or development in their business. Nor should they be expected to.” Pretending otherwise only makes people suspicious, which erodes trust and, ultimately, makes the overtly confident seem like frauds.

In this context, leaders are far more effective when they replace the cocky dictatorial act with a more collaborative approach. “When you say, ‘I have all the answers,’ what you’re really saying to your audience is, ‘I don’t need your help,’” says Bart Egnal, president and CEO of The Humphrey Group, a Toronto-based executive communications training firm. This diminishes engagement and discourages diversity of thought. “But when you say, ‘I don’t know,’ what you’re really saying is, ‘I want to hear your ideas.’ That creates more meaningful, fulsome dialogue.” Moreover, it promotes discovery and experimentation, both crucial in protecting a business against stagnation.


Curt Hanke, CEO of Wisconsin-based digital agency Shine United learned this early on in his career. As a young entrepreneur, he remembers a consumer packaged goods client whose new leader had none of the bravado you’d expect of someone in such a competitive field. “He was vulnerable and open, a complete contrast to the way the organization was run,” Hanke recalls. It was jarring at first, but Hanke watched incredulously as the client’s business blossomed. “He got the most from us as a vendor, he got the most from his colleagues and employees, and he created a real energy of inclusion. It was kind of like magic dust.” That experience motivated Hanke to take a similar approach at Shine United, and he partly attributes the firm’s success in scoring marquee clients like Harley-Davidson and Jones Soda to his honesty as CEO.

This is not to suggest that anyone should become a total cipher. There are subjects, such as your firm’s quarterly results or its overall strategic direction, to which you should bring clarity. But for everything else, the occasional, “I’m not sure. What do you think?” is a sign of strength, not weakness. “No one likes to feel dumb,” says Hanke. “But once you give yourself permission to not always be right, all sorts of great outcomes happen.”