The Power of the “I Don’t Know”

When we typically think of the attributes that make a good leader, we may naturally begin to name such examples as intelligence, ability to influence, and confidence. While these are all related to effectiveness in leadership to various extents, the last one—confidence—may be a double-edged sword.

So, what do we mean by this? Well, effective leaders are able to set a vision, provide strategic direction, and influence others to buy into the vision. However, none of this requires that the leader have all of the answers. In fact, it can actually be quite dangerous for a leader to make decisions on incomplete or inaccurate data. According to a study, for instance, making ineffective decisions can cost an organization upwards of 3% of profits.

The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool. -William Shakespeare

Yes, being confident in your decision-making is important, but it’s equally as important that you are confident about what you don’t know. 

Beyond avoiding the negative implications of poor decisions, being forthcoming about your lack of knowledge has a number of benefits. In fact, a leader admitting that they do not know something can be a major opportunity to engage and empower their teams. The mere act of saying, “I’m not sure, what do you think?” can not only stimulate new ideas and perspectives (thus building your competency) but also build trust amongst teams. This is because leaders become more relatable and credible amongst their colleagues and direct reports. 

How can this be put into practice? Easily. The next time you are asked something you don’t immediately know the answer to, try starting with “I don’t know…”


Gartner. Gartner Says Bad Financial Decisions by Managers Cost Firms More Than 3 Percent of Profits.