“It takes courage not to know”: How do you lead entrepreneurially or in business?

Some years ago, I rented office space in a large building, where there was an unusual building manager, an individual unlike any other in that role whom I’d ever met. We’ll say her name was “Maud” (not her real name) and although she had moved here from sunnier climes, she was (in honest characterization) of European descent, middle age and spoke with what most would call a middle-class accent.

Maud claimed proudly to have worked as a building manager all over the western half of the world.  I remember her best for sitting behind her desk in a cramped office alcove—a windowless room where sound and air circulated, as if in a metal bucket. She would squirrel away hours behind her desk, monitoring the building security cameras, manipulating a two-way radio, through which she spoke with staff, and reading the internet on her smartphone.

While she lamented that she’d been hired to lead some incompetent  staff, she was memorable for her deep-seated belief that her experience, age and background made her an authority on everything. (She was what you might have called in primary school a “know-it-all.”) If a person was foolish enough to enter her office for casual conversation (as some were), they soon found themselves ambushed by her authoritarian manner. Some seemed too cowed just to get up and walk away.

A senior who had a recent hip replacement was instructed (unbidden) on how to walk, to reduce post-surgical pain. An adult tenant who burned toast one morning was lectured on how to use a toaster “correctly.” There was only one kind of laundry detergent that should be used to wash one’s clothes, but hardly anyone knew it (except for Maud). And on it went. The advice was not solicited and rarely, if ever, helped the tenant.

Leaders who know too much

This issue of a person knowing (or not knowing) also pertains to the work of freelancers, entrepreneurs and other business types who lead their own and/or others’ professional lives. The American social scientist and author, Brene Brown, writes in her book, Dare to Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts (2018) that not knowing things is more courageous than know-it-all people realize.

She says that leaders in every niche of the business world have problems—not with fear (as we might think)—but with hiding behind apparent knowledge, or the armour of being the “knower.” The knower insists s/he is always right.

Brown asks of business exchanges, “when things get tough, do we lean into vulnerability and get curious, or do we self-protect in ways that move away from our values?”

“Knowers” lead fruitlessly, says Brene Brown

For the “knower,” Brown writes, the armour is “defensiveness, posturing, and, worst of all, it’s a huge driver of bullshit. It’s also very common—most of us have some degree of ‘knower’ in us. [But] needing to know everything is pretty miserable for the knowers and everyone around them. It leads to distrust, bad decisions, and unnecessary, unproductive conflict.”

No one I spoke to enjoyed their “meetings” with Maud, or felt they’d learned from them. The area outside her office was a common scene for ridiculousness, such as skirmishes between smokers and non-smokers;  and between stair climbers and elevator riders. Can you recall similar exchanges from meetings you once attended (in a j-o-b) or fruitless discussions shared at the office water cooler?

Brown adds that it’s not easy to replace self-protecting armour to become what she says is a “curious learner,” because for many people, the need to be a knower results from painful experiences, such as shame or trauma.

She writes: “Being a knower can save people facing tough situations and it’s easy to buy into the belief that being a knower is the only value we bring to relationships and work.” According to my neighbours, no issue in Maud’s office ever seemed to get resolved. But she said she was making invaluable improvements to the building.

3 ways to change from always knowing to always learning

Brown suggests three strategies to change oneself  or encourage another to change from being an “always knowing” type of person to an “always learning” one:

(1) Name the issue: tell the knower in your community (or you, if the shoe fits) that they need to work on curiosity and critical thinking skills. To be quick with answers all the time is “a symptom of the problem.”

(2) Put priority on sharing or learning those “curiosity skills.” Some of us can’t remember how to be curious or, even worse, we were taught to squelch it.  Read articles and books like Brown’s Dare to Lead to address that.

(3) Acknowledge from peers or subordinates great questions and statements of “I don’t know but I’d like to find out,” and encourage them to follow up on. them. These are important to leadership.

“Grounded confidence” includes curiosity, coping, practice

Freelancers, entrepreneurs and business leaders all need what Brene Brown calls “grounded confidence,” which is the sum of [“curiosity + willingness to cope with vulnerability + practice”].

She concludes, “While knowing is a barrier to bravery, grounded confidence is the heart of daring leadership” and action. It takes courage “not to know.”

Leaders share their humanity and personality

Even the most brilliant entrepreneur would miss opportunities for leadership if they don the armour of knowing:  because with that attitude,  no one could engage meaningfully with them—and thereby discover their humanity and personality.

Sometimes in entrepreneurial and business circles, instead of  leadership, we find much mutual frustration. Leaders may leave a couple of years after their arrival and with a legacy so brief that their names are immediately forgotten. What remains, though (as has been said elsewhere), is how they made others feel–and think.

And now it’s your turn: In entrepreneurial or business relationships, have you met leaders who are “knowers?” After you have read Brene Brown’s insights, how would you respond to that kind of leader?

More importantly, how do you seek curiosity in what you do and follow through on it, when exploring your industry or niche?