June 16, 2024

The Courage To Admit What You Don’t Know

Shane Jackson, President of Jackson Healthcare, a $1.5 billion healthcare staffing and technology company built on a values-led culture

When I was a kid, I used to love watching the G.I. Joe cartoon series. At the end of each episode, there was a public service-like message with a helpful life tip that ended with a character saying, “Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.” That counted as sage advice in the cartoon world.

The challenge today is that leaders are expected to have both knowledge of — and an informed opinion on — just about every topic. In a sometimes chaotic world with 24/7 news and social media cycles, it is assumed that those with influence must be able to speak to every event or trending topic as soon as it drops. Even a delay in acknowledging the topic or news can be interpreted as an opinion.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to politicians. Consumers and employees increasingly expect business leaders to speak out on issues that the consumers deem important. In particular, 86% of survey respondents for the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer expect CEOs to speak out on one or more societal issues. Even the most complex of topics is expected to be addressed quickly and simply, regardless of how disconnected the story is from the work you do. This is a frightening proposition for anyone, but especially for a leader who has a responsibility to consider the ramifications of their words for the many stakeholders of their business.

There’s no question that those of us in leadership can and should use our platforms to positively impact the lives of those around us. And it’s also true that there are many issues for which businesses are uniquely positioned to provide solutions. Based on the free-enterprise principle of voluntary exchange, businesses are a force for good as we provide value to customers and opportunities for employees.

But if we try to hold ourselves to the unrealistic expectation of voicing an immediate opinion on every situation and problem in our society, we are not only setting ourselves up for failure, we’re ignoring one of the most important lessons of leadership:

Acknowledge what you know and what you don’t.

In our company’s culture, it is okay to not know something. What’s not okay is to pretend you know something you don’t.

When we are discussing a decision in our company, “I don’t know” is ironically one of the most helpful phrases I can hear. The alternative to this is dangerous — namely someone representing a statement as actual knowledge when in fact it may not be true. That leads to bad decisions based on bad information.

It is common sense that the more information you have about a subject, the better decision you are able to make. When leaders are expected to have in-depth knowledge about every subject, it pressures them to form opinions without sufficient information. Complex business decisions require insight, analysis and thoughtfulness. Good leaders understand this, and effective cultures recognize and allow for it.

Yet when it comes to issues in the public domain, many rush to judgment. There is no appetite for reflection or understanding. Media sound bites aren’t long enough to explain any nuance. In a country that feels hyper-divided, what people really seem to want is for you to just pick a side, so they know whether you are on their team or not.

Business leaders are in a unique and frankly unprecedented time in which stakeholders are looking expectantly at us for opinions on all sorts of issues. Leaders have an opportunity to create a real impact in areas where they have the expertise and in-depth knowledge. However, business leaders are now under pressure to speak to events or issues that often have little — and sometimes nothing — to do with their business. Leaders must resist the temptation or feel pressured to rush into positions or statements that may only serve to divide rather than to create understanding. Instead, they should leverage their unique influence to create dialogue and a deeper understanding of the incredibly complex issues before them. This approach takes more time and may not result in as many social media reactions, but ultimately could have a much greater impact.

Next time you feel pressured to comment on one of the many stories of the day, consider setting an example for those around you when you say, “I don’t know. Let’s learn about this together.” And then make good on that promise.

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