What if our leadership actually expands from not knowing?

In these disruptive times of unpredictable change, leaders commit malpractice by trying to know all possible contingencies to any dilemma or strategy. To feign knowledge is futile, and can be fatal to one’s leadership.

Protecting an all-knowing mindset also takes a toll on one’s physical and mental energy. Such an “all-knowing” mindset fears mistakes, dreads uncertainty, and resists saying “I don’t know.” It belongs in the 1990’s.

Moreover, this all-knowing mindset gives colleagues a false sense of certainty. It discourages others from thinking, engaging questions, presenting ideas, or taking initiative. It traps leadership in outmoded knowledge when it must become dynamic and course through the bloodstream of an organization.

Part of accepting uncertainty demands that leaders embrace the vulnerability of not knowing, and leverage the wisdom from those around them. Today, unlearning and not knowing trumps the “all-knowing” mindset as the coin of the realm.

Crucibles of Learning

Let’s begin with distinguishing between knowing and learning. The former seeks proven or verifiable knowledge while the latter seeks discovery via inquiry.

Essayist, Anias Nin declared, “We do not see the world as it is, we see it as we are.”

This Rorschach view of life reveals who we’ve “learned” to become. For humans, learning begins before we know or understand what is happening to us. During our formative years, we learned to cope with perceived threats. Coping often manifests as events such as dealing with a personal crisis, currying favor as a middle child or dealing with some insecurity at school.

Those earliest moments became crucible learning moments that we embody today. When pressed to grapple with any uncertainty, we reflexively draw upon that default learning as “knowledge” to engage any perceived insecurity or threat.

If as a child I learned to keep quiet to be safe, my leadership is now forged in attitudes to keep a low profile and play it safe when dealing with power, authority, or uncertainty. Even when faced with urgent action, I will gather more information, analyze the data, and ruminate over plans before I speak up.

I am stuck with Maslow’s golden hammer. I rely on my one tool for any situation. At best I may refine this tool, but developing more tools is akin to an identity crisis as it demands I examine who I am — my “being” — to discover blind spots.

This gets at first-person learning or discovering my way of “being.” First-person learning expands priceless self-knowledge to deal with an uncertain world with volatile change, and increasing complexity.

Learning from Being

Not all learning is equal. Each has its potency.

INCREASE KNOWING: Third-Person “empirical” approach increases knowledge, to develop understanding or skillsets. Through study and research of a topic, we increase understanding, become knowledgeable, and produce better results.

IMPROVE DOING: Second-Person “experiential” approach leverages experiences through applying knowledge. This approach invites experimenting with topics that can improve processes to produce better actions.

EXPAND BEING: First-Person “existential” approach expands self-discovery to develop the capacity that encourages unlearning. This kind of learning unlearns assumptions to expand views.

With first-person learning, we unlearn closely-held perceptions, assumptions, and beliefs that both lull and trap us into comfortable frames of reference. Still, conventional education delivers third-person knowledge, to study subjects rather than examine the learner’s view of those subjects.

Diminishing Returns of Knowledge

The difference is our evolving view of knowledge. The once stable predictor to guide strategy, knowledge is now fungible and is driving disruptive change. Professional skillsets have a half-life of five years. Regardless of our expertise or education, success requires increasing capacity or awareness to “know thyself.” Self-knowledge prepares us to deal with any situation as a possibility rather than a threat.

Yoda-Learning-1Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund (at $169 Billion) gets it:

“People think that my success is … because of what I know. It’s not. It’s due more to how I deal with not knowing.”

In 2011, Dalio published a 123-page manifesto of principles for success. Consider three of his top ten:

  • Find outcomes that will keep you improving
  • Teach your team that it’s okay to fail if it results in learning something
  • Recognize what you don’t know

Dalio understands that the pain of learning comes from being vulnerable and from unlearning. His principles develop a learning culture organized around this fundamental belief: successful people understand how to manage pain to produce progress.

Learning cultures highlight the difference between understanding knowledge (knowing) and discovering one’s being (awareness). The latter demands expanding human capabilities by creating a culture of not knowing to manage our vulnerability in the face of the unknown.

Practice Not Knowing

Mastering vulnerability or not knowing begins with creating a little space between our automatic thinking and our automatic actions (reactions). This requires a focus on listening and observing. These practices serve our clients well.

DISCOVER: become aware of embodied defensiveness – in your body — that preserves and protects your current mindset.

  • PAUSE: When triggered by a situation, question, or person … pause, connect to the floor (feeling your feet on the ground), and breathe.
  • OPEN LISTENING: Now, listen again to the words actually spoken. If needed have them repeated.

RELEASE: Identify existing judgments to loosen and lessen their grip.

  • OBSERVE LISTENING: Notice if you added any defense, justifications with any need to be right.
  • OBSERVE TRIGGERS: Name any condition that triggered you: a word, action, body language, speed of conversation, confusion, overwhelm, time constraint, etc.

PRACTICE: Implement these steps to slow down your listening.

  • CREATE SPACE: Create one second (one-Mississippi-one) between what you observe or hear, and any reflexive speaking, or action.
  • CHOOSE: Now … see if you can choose newly.

Reading Time: 4 min. Digest Time: 5.5 min.

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Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist psychology to sustain contemplative practice.