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How To Say ‘I Don’t Know’ With Grace And Authority—A Leadership Lesson From Ta-Nehisi Coates

Source | | Hanna Hart

“I know that to scale up I should get out of the weeds and focus on contributing at a higher strategic level. I’ve got to empower my team, especially the managers who report to me, to make decisions. I can’t be in everything.” My client, Amir, who leads a policy team in a large tech company, is at a growth point in his career. He’s read the management books that tell him to get work done through others. However, within his company culture, “The reality is that knowledge is currency. And if you are not in-the-know, you risk losing credibility.” So he is caught. On the one hand, he fears that he will be exposed as being out-of-the-loop, and on the other hand, he knows he has to get beyond his own knowledge and expertise in order to be an effective leader.

We’ve all heard that “knowledge is power,” and we  live in a so-called “knowledge economy.” But for managers and leaders, it is essential to liberate their minds from some of the minutiae of knowing the details to free up mental processing space for the bigger picture as well as to hire people who have expertise beyond their own and let them shine. This requires being willing to say, “I don’t know” with confidence, grace and authority.

Saying, “I don’t know” with authority may seem oxymoronic, but it is part of being a leader.  Journalist, author and National Book Award Winner Ta-Nehisi Coates did it beautifully in his Civil Conversations interview with Krista Tippett. During the audience Q&A, Coates was asked for advice on how to teach history. His response: “I have no teaching advice at all. I was a terrible student. I failed my way through high school. I don’t know how I got into Howard University, but I failed my way through that too. I just — I don’t know. I have horrible advice, in terms of teaching.” The audience laughed, then waited for him to answer the question. “I’m serious,” he said, “Because one of the things that annoys me is, people act like they know everything…. Come on, be clear about what you know and what you don’t know.”

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