Last week a community member approached me at a wrestling meet. The individual wanted to better-understand our upcoming bond referendum, and was hoping I could answer their question. Although I have a decent understanding of school finance, I quickly realized I did not have an answer to this particular inquiry. Slightly embarrassed, I proceeded to give the best response I could, but admitted that I would probably need to get back to this person at a later time with a more-definitive answer.
As I left the wrestling meet, I was disappointed with myself. I take pride in being able to deliver accurate information to others, and feel a sense of accomplishment when I can guide community members in the right direction. Not knowing exactly what to tell this curious stakeholder led to feelings of inadequacy. “Surely if anyone should know the answer to this question...it should be the Superintendent!” I lamented.
As I relatively new school superintendent, I often experience feelings of self-doubt when I don’t immediately have all of the answers. Not only is it difficult to admit when I don’t have answers to questions, I also have a tendency to refrain from asking questions in group settings for fear that others may already know the answer. Ultimately, there is a worry that I could be exposed as a “phony” if it is discovered I can’t recall everything I’m expected to know in my position.
One of my goals this year has been to confront my anxiety and “be okay with not knowing.” Therefore I was quite happy to stumble upon the following quote from The Little Big Things by Tom Peters: “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.”
Taking this advice to heart, I have recently been giving myself permission to ask “dumb questions” in a variety of settings. When I realize an underlying, unanswered question needs to be brought to the groups’ attention I simply begin with “Can I ask a dumb question?” and - after being granted permission - proceed with the inquiry. I’ve found bringing these questions to the surface not only provides me with a deeper understanding of the topic, but often I’ve found others at the table secretly share the same question. Furthermore, I have noticed when the “boss” asks these questions, he or she gives permission to others to admit weakness.
Ultimately, I am hopeful that one day I will become an expert in school finance. But until then, I must continue to remind myself that it’s okay to confess when I don’t know the answer.