The Three Words That Great Leader’s Aren’t Afraid to Say

Three powerful words in business that can hint at a professional willing to grow and become a great leader. Understand the power of “I don’t know.”

In the business world, we’re conditioned to provide immediate and confident responses to questions, even if we don’t truly know the answers. Nowhere is this more evident than in job interviews. Candidates seek to hide gaps in their knowledge at all costs. They often prefer to fumble through a question rather than say just three powerful words…

“I don’t know.”

Effective leaders have answers. They set strategy and drive results. At least on the surface, it seems that leaders aren’t ones to say, “I don’t know.”

Yet, if you look deeper into any industry, you’ll find that not knowing is essential for professional growth.

The CEO Who Didn’t Know

When Google’s current CEO, Sundar Pichai, applied for the VP of Product Management position at the company, he was asked a question to which he couldn’t possibly have known the answer to.

The interviewer asked what he thought of Gmail; the ubiquitous email platform that everybody inside and outside of business is familiar with today.

At the time, Gmail was less than a day old. The average candidate may have tried to bluff their way through the question. Sundar didn’t. After a moment of consideration, he told his interviewer, “I don’t know. I haven’t used it.”

Successful companies are built on great ideas and effective implementation. But throughout the process, there are times when people simply don’t have answers.

When professionals and leaders can own their lack of knowledge, expertise, or insight, the vulnerability loop begins. It only takes a single person to utter “I don’t know” to trigger a chain reaction. By exposing vulnerability, others within a team can also admit their own shortcomings. This leads to open exchanges where information is shared, and knowledge gaps are filled. Vulnerability allows for innovation and self-improvement.

When Sundar Pichai said he didn’t know, he wasn’t politely thanked for his time and sent to pursue a career elsewhere. He eventually made it through Google’s often intensive process and has since become the leader of the company. Laszlo Bock, the former Senior VP of People Operations at Google and a mentor and advisor to Sundar once summed up the problem with not admitting vulnerability.

In a 2013 interview he made a statement almost as powerful as the three words. He told the interviewer that “Successful, bright people rarely experience failure, so they don’t learn how to learn from that failure.”

This sums up many of the problems that can exist in leadership structures. It could be thought of as a form of intellectual arrogance, or at least ignorance. Without having mechanisms in place to overcome knowledge and experience gaps, leaders can lose direction and make poor decisions.

Companies that understand this don’t immediately lose confidence in the job applicants, employees, and leaders that don’t know. Instead, they understand that the vulnerability loop can lead to higher levels of success.

After “I don’t know”, the next step is asking for help. That’s where problem solving, growth, collaboration, and innovation are born.

Don’t Discount Those Who Don’t Know

Sure, there are exceptions. A reasonable level of competency is required for any position, from the entry-level all the way to the C-suite.

However, those who are brave enough to say “I don’t know” aren’t necessarily weak or unfit for the role. They could actually be showing strength and maturity through vulnerability. This could be exactly what a business needs.