All Articles Leadership Strategy Do you know how much you don't know?

Do you know how much you don’t know?

3 min read


“The thing that is interesting to me as a politician who’s been out of office a few years and now I see the world is how much I didn’t know, which is really shocking.” — Tony Blair, former British prime minister, on April 9

Tony Blair was discussing his experience with Margaret Thatcher, his efforts toward global health and peace, and was even a bit self-critical when I saw him speak April 9 at my alma mater, Baltimore-based Loyola University Maryland.

His statement above should concern leaders of all stripes. Blair is educated, presumably inquisitive and, as prime minister, had access to incredible stores of information, as well as staff and advisers to help him parse the data. Regardless of how much advice and detail he wanted to hear or what he did with that information and counsel, few would think that the leading political official in a Western democracy would have a lack of available knowledge. Yet, Blair’s post-office global travels have led him to that conclusion.

What does this mean for those of us who aren’t running a country but who are managers, run a small business or operate a nonprofit?

  • Admitting surprise at being uninformed is not just for the arrogant. Sure, it seems absurd that Blair only realized in recent years the breadth of what he doesn’t understand, but let’s think of it on a micro level. How many of us are knowledgeable about our day-to-day business — and also curious and on the watch for threats and trends — yet will be caught off-guard by something that will later seem obvious? Arrogance is only one of many possible factors behind such a failing.
  • Being blind to what we don’t know can be a byproduct of success and necessity. This is somewhat of a good thing. After all, many of us have advanced by being good at what we do, and by an ability to learn and apply new information. Blair said the toughest problems are so difficult because they cannot be avoided. At some point, we must make a decision based on what we know, however incomplete.
    The danger here is twofold: We begin to regard our knowledge and business intelligence not as incomplete, but as a compendium of everything relevant. This mistaken belief can become reinforced if we then conflate the act of making decisions with being informed. Even successful decisions and an open mind don’t remove the risk of blind spots — it’s a lot easier to make adjustments in reaction to failure than after success.
  • Being curious doesn’t mean being impulsive. Learning more about people, cultures and concepts doesn’t mean abrupt changes in mindset, beliefs or strategy. But bringing in different perspectives, combined with reflection and analysis, can help you more accurately calculate what you know and what you don’t.

How have you have dealt with the realization that you were less knowledgeable than you first believed, and how do you try to be on guard? Please share your thoughts in the comments.