Posted by: chrismaser | May 13, 2010


A fear of many leaders is facing their limitations because they think they will lose the respect of their followership if they say, “I really don’t know where to go with this situation” or “I can’t see any solution to this problem.” However, an honest leader not only has the best chance of retaining their following but also has the best chance of winning the respect of their constituents by frankly admitting their limitations.

From the perspective of a follower, on the other hand, the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of direct honesty as opposed to an attempt to fake competence. Nevertheless, leaders—especially those young in experience—often burden themselves with what they perceive to be the expectation of their followers, namely, that they should be all-knowing and skillful in their leadership, even without experience. But even if they were “all-knowing” and possessed vast experience, it would not be enough in every situation. Ignorance would still at times reign supreme, probably more often than they would like.

Although ignorance is thought of as the lack of knowledge, there is more to it than that. Our sense of the world and our place in it is couched in terms of what we are sure we know and what we think we know. Our universities and laboratories are filled with searching minds, and our libraries are bulging with the fruits of our exploding knowledge, yet where is there an accounting of our ignorance?

Ignorance is not okay in our fast-moving world. We are chastised from the time we are infants until we die for not knowing an answer that someone else thinks we “should” know. If we do not know the correct answer, we can even be labeled “stupid,” which is not the same as being ignorant about something. Being stupid is usually thought of as being mentally slow to grasp an idea, but being ignorant is simply not knowing the acceptable answer to a particular question.

When a leader can answer a follower’s question with a purposeful “I don’t know,” that leader is allowed not only to freely admit their limitation but also to affirm that they neither are nor must be in charge of the universe. Secreted in your ignorance is the incredible freedom to accept the frailty of what it means to be human, to be simply what you are.

Society’s preoccupation with building a shining tower of knowledge blinds us to the ever-present dull luster of ignorance, which underlies the foundation of the tower from which all questions must arise and over which the tower of knowledge must stand. Each new brick in the tower of knowledge is born of a question that simultaneously originates in and illuminates our ignorance. Yet ignorance, which often is seen as negative, is but a point along the continuum of consciousness, as are knowledge and the intuitive knowing beyond.

The quest for knowledge in the material world is a never-ending pursuit, but the quest does not mean that a thoroughly schooled person is an educated person or that an educated person is a wise person. I say this because leaders, in common with all of us, are too often blinded by their ignorance of their ignorance, and the only thing worse than not knowing is not knowing you don’t know. Therefore, the pursuit of knowledge is no guarantee of wisdom. Hence, a leader is prone to becoming the blind leading the blind when their overemphasis on competition in nearly everything makes looking good more important than being good. The resultant fear of looking bad is one of the greatest enemies of a leader who sincerely wants to be wise enough to learn.

Although our ignorance is undeniably vast, it is from the vastness of this selfsame ignorance that our sense of wonder grows. But when we do not know we are ignorant, we do not know enough to even question, let alone investigate, our ignorance.

A leader cannot, however, teach anyone anything. All a leader can do for someone else is to facilitate learning by helping that person discover the wonder of their own ignorance. By asking an appropriate question in an appropriate way, a wise leader may be able to help a person become aware of their ignorance in a given area without stealing their dignity.

A teacher is but a “midwife,” as the Greek philosopher Socrates said, because once a person realizes their own ignorance and begins in earnest to search for understanding, that person slowly comes to see that such understanding can only be drawn out from within. Understanding, after all, is the unique perspective of each and every person, and that includes understanding silence.

Series on Leadership Challenges:

• The Challenges Of Leadership

• Dealing With Anxiety

• Use Of Power

• Criticism In The Form Of Projection

• Criticism And Your Image

• Being And Disclosing Yourself

• The Zen Of Perfection

• Understanding Silence

• Understanding The Need To Be Heard

• Establishing Your Boundaries

• Dealing With The Uncommitted

• Accepting Slow Or Delayed Results

• Learning Your Limits

Text © by Chris Maser, 2010. All rights reserved.

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This article is excerpted from my 1998 book, Vision and Leadership in Sustainable Development. Lewis Publishers, Boca Raton, FL. 235 pp. It is updated in my 2012 book, Decision Making For A Sustainable Environment: A Systemic Approach. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL. If you want more information about this book, want to purchase it, or want to contact me—visit my website.

If you wish, you can also read an article about what is important to me and/or you can listen to me give a presentation.

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