Dan, You Ignorant . . . Leader


The laughter surprised me.  I felt a surge of indignation, but just as quickly it was gone. Because, I realized that I didn’t understand their response of laughter. . . because they hadn’t understood the point I was making.  You might catch the irony by the end of this column.

“They” were my leadership students last week, and I had carefully laid out a case for the importance of listening. One of the points I harped on was that good listening requires you to go against a lifetime of cognitive and social learning.  You, reader and I have the same wiring!   Cognitive learning, because we are smart and can understand quickly. And social learning, cuz we don’t ever want to look dumb and/or have the speaker feel like they’re not making sense. We have all been taught to get it, get it quick, nod affirmatively, try to fill in the missing pieces in your mind if you have to, or just ignore the part you’re not sure you get.

So, I told my students, try this time to NOT understand. Ask me about the part you DON’T get. And I quit talking. One guy raised his hand and asked a really basic question. I don’t mean basic in a bad way. I mean basic, like the base, foundational.  I took another cut at explaining the point to him and the class, and as I did I could see nods of TRUE understanding this time.  Then I asked the same question:  Okay you guys, what do you NOT get? And the process repeated itself exactly as the first.

I was so excited, striding across the front of the room, I thanked the two interrogators. I said “your ignorance” – but before I could finish my sentence I heard the laughter that I wrote about in the first sentence of this column ripple through the entire room.  I finished, “[your ignorance was great leadership. Everyone benefited.”  I paused for a minute to reflect on their laughter, and with an a-ha explained myself to them, “No. Wait. When I say ‘ignorance,’ I mean it as a huge compliment. That wasn’t a jab! I mean Socratic ignorance. And Socrates was one of the wisest people to walk the earth.”*  And his wisdom lay in his continuously acknowledging his ignorance and continuously seeking to understand better and more.

I still catch myself:

  • arguing with someone before I know what they are saying
  • acting like I know what someone is saying when I’m not really sure, or
  • or just spacing out and missing what they’re saying!

I invite us all to go against our lifetimes of cognitive and social learning to show how quickly we know, and instead Practice Socratic “not knowing” to:

  • actually learn so much more
  • help others to better understand their own thoughts and feelings (because sometimes they are unclear speaking because they are unclear in their thinking)
  • build a relationship of trust in order to work, live and love better, and

through such powerful, attentive listening to

Lead with your best self.

*Historical note from Plato’s Apology of Socrates:  Socrates said he was told by a friend Chaerephon that the latter had gone to the Oracle of Delphi [the gods] and asked if anyone in the world was wiser than Socrates, and he was told there was no such person.  Socrates claimed to think it ridiculous, but he began to believe it for this peculiar reason.  When he talked to everyone else who was said to be wise he found that they thought they knew things that they just did not know for sure. Whereas Socrates claimed to NOT know things which he did not know.  This is what came to be known as Socratic ignorance.