Last winter 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 baseline knowledge, to say I have a deep understanding of school finance at this point in my career would be a stretch.
I quickly realized I did not have an answer to this particular inquiry. Slightly embarrassed, I proceeded to give the best response I could, admitting I would need to get back to this person at a later time with a more-definitive answer.
I felt disappointment upon leaving the wrestling meet. I take pride sharing accurate information, and believe my job is to help others. 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.
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.
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 this does two things. First, clarity is provided to the topic being discussed. Second - and more importantly - the boss gives others permission to get vulnerable by asking their own "dumb" questions.
Another area where being okay with not knowing comes in handy is when dealing with fast talkers.
Fast talkers are individuals who share information so quickly others do not have a chance to wrap their head around an idea. In school districts, fast talkers come in many shapes and sizes. Salespeople, architects, engineers, parents, employees … even students can all push an agenda if we aren’t careful.
Whether intentional or not, these individuals flourish when others are afraid to ask questions for fear of looking stupid.
Leaders must recognize it's their responsibility to understand a concept before agreeing to a decision. When leaders feel pressured to do something they don't understand, they should feel comfortable declaring, "Sorry for being stupid, but I'm going to need you to slow down so I can make sense of what you're saying." Then they ask their questions.
One day I hope to be an expert in all aspects of school leadership.
Until then, I must remind myself it’s okay to admit I don’t have all the answers.