A couple years ago a community member approached me at a wrestling meet.
The individual wanted to better-understand our upcoming bond referendum and was looking for an answer to their question. Although I had baseline knowledge, to say I had a deep comprehension of school finance would be a stretch.
I quickly realized I did not have an answer to this particular inquiry. Slightly embarrassed, I proceeded to give my best response, while admitting I needed to get back to this person at a later time with a more-definitive answer.
Disappointment consumed my emotions upon leaving the meet. I took pride in sharing accurate information, and believed my job was to help others. Not knowing exactly what to tell this curious stakeholder led to feelings of inadequacy.
“Surely if anyone should know the answer ... it should be the Superintendent!” I lamented.
Leaders often experience self-doubt when they don’t know something. There is an underlying worry they could be exposed as a “phony” when others discover they don't know every detail about their position.
Rather than feel pressure to know everything, leaders must be okay with not knowing and learn how to deal with consequent feelings of vulnerability.
In The Little Big Things, Tom Peters recommends, “Swallow your pride by asking questions until you understand. The "dumber" the question, the better! Bosses are prone to falling into the trap of not admitting when they don't know the answer or have trouble with the concept. Fact is, we should readily admit when we do not know something, and also actively seek out things we do not know.”
Although it sounds counterintuitive, leaders should give themselves permission to ask “dumb questions” in a variety of settings.
Smart leaders develop a sixth sense for realizing when basic, underlying questions need to be asked. When bosses bring "dumb questions" to the surface two things happen: clarity is provided to the topic being discussed and permission is given to others in the room to be vulnerable.
Consider the various meetings you attend. Do you believe everyone around the table has a deep understanding of every topic discussed? Often, attendees are limited on their knowledge of the concepts and therefore do not fully grasp the rationale behind decisions. But rather than publicly admit their confusion, they remain quiet, nod their head, and go along with the group.
By reading body language and knowing the strengths of their people, effective leaders pause the discussion when they realize questions are lurking. This takes confidence and humility by the leader, but - when applied properly - results in efficient meetings and informed decisions.
Being comfortable "not knowing" also comes in handy with salespeople. When you move into a leadership role, suddenly everyone wants your business. Architects, engineers, vendors, marketers – these people appear out of thin air when you become the person in charge.
Salespeople are skilled at their jobs. They share information so quickly that it's hard for school leaders to wrap their head around the idea. Whether intentional or not, salespeople flourish when others are afraid to ask questions for fear of looking stupid. Before we know it, we have signed a contract and have no clue what we signed up for.
Sometimes, we think “I’m the school leader, I should know this stuff” so we keep our mouths shut and nod our heads in agreement. Do not fall into this trap! Just because you are in a leadership position does not make you an expert in every school-related topic. And if you believe other leaders have everything figured out - you're wrong. They are just as confused as you.
When leaders feel pressured to do something they don't understand, they must calmly declare, "I'm sorry, but you're going to need to slow down so I can make sense of what you're saying" then ask their questions.
I'll be the first to admit - I still don't have school finance figured out. There are still many questions outside my area of expertise.
But rather than beat myself up, I feel comfortable saying "I don't know, but I'll get back to you with an answer."
Many leaders believe they earn credibility by having all the answers.
In reality, leaders earn credibility by asking dumb questions.