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Why good leaders need to learn the power of ‘I don’t know’

If a leader doesn’t know the answer to a question, it’s important to admit so. “You may be tempted to bluff,” Stanford professor Irv Grousbeck advises new CEOs. “Don’t.”

Source | | BILL SNYDER

If you’re a top-level business manager, admitting that you don’t know something can be difficult. After all, anyone who has clambered to the top of the corporate food chain is expected to exude certainty and self-confidence. In short, you’re supposed to be the person with all the answers.

But thinking of yourself that way can be a mistake, says H. Irving Grousbeck, an adjunct professor of management at Stanford Graduate School of Business and the cofounder of Continental Cablevision.

When a direct report comes to you with a question you can’t answer, Grousbeck says, resist the temptation to guess. Instead, consider saying, “I don’t know.” Those three words constitute a powerful answer that shows humility and self-confidence.

“You may be tempted to bluff. Don’t,” he says. “If you bluff an answer, you may be wrong, and that will damage your credibility and your authenticity.”

Grousbeck made his comments in a keynote speech at the 2019 Search Fund CEO Conference, held at Stanford GSB. He discussed the personal qualities that lead a CEO to success, the need to hire and fire “ahead of the curve,” and how executives can serve as a teacher—as well as a manager—to their direct reports.

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