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The Power of Not Knowing

You have probably heard the saying, “Knowledge is power.” I want to make a case for ignorance—not the lack of education or stupidity, but simply the lack of certainty.

When I graduated from the Marriott School, I took a job working for a maverick software company called Oracle. The company had a very simple and clear hiring strategy: hire the top grads out of the top schools, mix them all together, and see what happens. I felt lucky to be working around such brilliant people, and I became a genius watcher. I could see how raw brilliance was a powerful tool for growth and innovation. I also could see how it was used as a weapon. Some leaders shut down people around them or simply never looked beyond their own genius to see the full genius of others.

a cartoon person with a lightbulb for a head on one panel and then another person with a lampshade on in the other panel with stars in the sky

The Magic of Multipliers

When I left Oracle to become a management researcher and author, I began studying why some leaders bring out the very best in the people around them (Multipliers) while others extinguish the intelligence around them (Diminishers).

I discovered leaders like Earvin “Magic” Johnson. As a young man, Earvin was phenomenally talented. His high school coach told him, “Every time you get the ball, I want you to take the shot.” So he did. The coach and the players loved it because they won every game. But after one particular game, Earvin noticed the faces of the parents who had come to watch their sons play basketball. Describing that experience, Johnson said, “I made a decision at this very young age that I would use my God-given talent to help everyone on the team be a better player.” This orientation earned Earvin his famous nickname, because he magically raised the level of play for every team he was on.

My research showed that Diminishers utilized less than half of the available intelligence around them, whereas Multipliers used all of it. And, interestingly, Diminishers aren’t always narcissistic, tyrannical bullies. Most are nice people who think they’re doing a good job. Becoming a great leader requires us to understand how our most noble intentions can end up having a diminishing effect.

The Brilliance of Rookies

Not only can our knowledge blind us to the capability of others, but it can also blind us to new possibilities. Once we become familiar with a subject, we tend to see what we expect to see. Obviously working without experience comes with downsides; no one wants a rookie surgeon or dentist. But when we’re doing something hard and important for the very first time, whether we’re twenty-five or sixty-five, we operate in some interesting ways.

My research team and I found that in this rookie mode we explore more. We lack know-how, so we go out and get it. We ask better questions, are more alert, listen more, and seek feedback. We’re agile because when we lack resources, we get resourceful. Contrary to popular opinion, we’re not big, bold risk-takers. We’re actually extremely cautious, testing ideas and checking in. It’s why we tend to outperform in knowledge work, especially in innovation, and speed.

As we progress in our careers, the path of least resistance leads to the knowledge trap, where we become blinded by the knowledge and limited by the capability we’ve worked so hard to obtain. What can we do as professionals and leaders to escape this knowledge trap?

Ask More Questions

One of the most powerful shifts we can make as a leader is to operate from a place of inquiry. My husband, Larry, and I have four children, but thirteen years ago, it was a mere three—ages six, four, and two. One day I was commiserating with my buddy Brian at work about some of our parenting challenges. I said, “Brian, I feel like I’ve become a dictator in my house.”

Brian acted very surprised by this, and he said, “Liz, you don’t strike me as a bossy mom.” So I described bedtime for him.

“Okay, kids. Time for bed. Put that away. Help your sisters. Get your pajamas on. No, the tag goes in the back. Brush your teeth. Use toothpaste. Time for a book. Not five books. Say your prayers. Get into bed—not my bed. Go to sleep.” There was no yelling; it was just a constant stream of telling them what to do night after night. If you have the six-four-two combo at your house, you know exactly what this is like.

Brian, overlooking the fact that this was recreational complaining, said, “Liz, why don’t you try speaking to your children only in questions tonight?”

I was intrigued by the challenge. That evening I asked, “Kids, what time is it?” And they said, “Bedtime.” “Who needs help getting their pajamas on? Who’s going to be the first to brush their teeth? What story are we going to read?” They responded with remarkable understanding of our bedtime routine. My last question was, “Who’s ready for bed?” They gleefully raced to get into their beds. I was left wondering, “How long have they known all this?”

When I asked questions, the kids found the answers. And at work people didn’t need me telling them what to do; they needed me to ask intelligent questions. We can tell less, and we can ask a lot more.

Admit What You Don’t Know

About twenty years ago, I sat in a meeting that changed forever how I defined a great leader. I was working at Oracle with our three top executives: the president, the chief technology officer, and the chief financial officer. We’d been running a series of strategy summits, bringing in executives, thirty at a time, to educate them on the corporate strategy.

Lampshade man drawing a question mark out of stars

The feedback was not good. The participants said the strategy articulated by the top leaders wasn’t clear or compelling. As I was reviewing the feedback, the executives became unusually quiet.

So what did I do? I went through the feedback one more time to make sure they understood. And that’s when the CFO blurted out, “Liz, we get that there’s a problem. The issue is we don’t know how to do this.” The president and the CTO were both nodding their heads in agreement.

“We’ve never run a $25 billion company before,” he continued. “We don’t know how to set a strategy for a company this global and complex, but if you help us learn to do this, that would be useful.” They then learned quickly and led the organization with a set of strategic questions rather than a set of strategy slides.

In fast times, everyone’s winging it—even the people at the top. So admit what you don’t know. It creates a powerful dynamic in an organization. And for those of you who are the new hires in your organization: relax. You were hired for your raw intellect and ability to learn and solve problems. Your value will come from the know-how you build, not the know-how you bring.

Throw Away Your Notes

C. K. Prahalad was a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross Business School and was considered to be one of the greatest management thinkers of his time. He was also a fire hazard to the university because his courses were so perpetually oversubscribed that students lined the halls trying to get in earshot of one of his lectures.

When C. K. was a tenured professor, his wife, Gayatri, found a stack of his teaching notes in the trash bin of their home office. She rescued these precious resources and returned them to C. K. later that night. He thanked her but admitted that he threw them away on purpose because “my students deserve my best, freshest thinking every time.” So if we need to inject a little bit of freshness into our work, maybe we should throw away some of our templates and standard agendas.

See the Genius in Others

Three of my children have an active sense of adventure. Christian, the seventeen-year-old, is different. He was born without fear and lives by the mantra “See it, climb it, and figure out how to get down later. Think it, make it, and clean up the mess absolutely never.” Like many boys, he built an elaborate man-fort complete with lounge, snack service, and a golf tee. However, his was thirty feet in the air on a small, flat spot on our roof. We only discovered it when a neighbor at the end of the street complained about golf balls in his pool. It’s very easy for Larry and me to see him as dangerous—broken bones and broken windows waiting to happen. It’s even easier to think we know best and to dispense survival advice. However, recently I decided to stop seeing problems and, instead, focus on seeing his genius.

I have come to see a brilliant creator, an innovator, a problem solver, and a fearless future missionary. Today, nothing makes me happier than seeing him light up when he tells me about his latest creation or daring adventure.

Seeking, Not Knowing

The best leaders don’t have the answers. They have really good questions, and they use their intelligence to bring out the genius in the people around them. In a 2009 piece for Time magazine, the great philosopher Bono compared the great artist George Clooney to a Multiplier from the 1800s. He wrote, “It has been said that after meeting with the great British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, you left feeling he was the smartest person in the world, but after meeting with his rival Benjamin Disraeli, you left thinking you were the smartest person.” It’s time we recognize that at the top of the intelligence hierarchy is not the genius; it’s the genius-maker.

Ironically, what I have come to know is that we tend to be at our best when we are on the outer edges of what we know—when we’re doing something new, learning, and growing through challenge. Yes, the glory of God is intelligence, but it’s in seeking—not knowing—that we find truth.


Speech given by Liz Wiseman
Illustrations by Mark Smith

About the Speaker
Liz Wiseman is president of the Wiseman Group, a leadership research and development firm headquartered in Silicon Valley, and author of Multipliers and Rookie Smarts. Previously she was an executive at Oracle, where she oversaw Oracle University. She earned both her bachelor’s degree in business management and an MOB from BYU. This text is adapted from her forum address to BYU students, faculty, and staff on 26 January 2016.

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