Leaders are often expected to have all the answers--right away and all the time. But, no single person can be an expert on everything. Knowledge gaps and unknown topics shouldn’t bring up feelings of dread. It’s okay to say “I don’t know”, even for leaders

Many regard leaders, especially leaders in the very highest echelons of their fields, to be some sort of super-leader, ready to multitask and lead the way into good fortune. In reality, leaders don’t always know all the answers.

Everyone Just Assumes You Know The Answer

Neuroscience is seeking to understand how brain mechanisms for perception (what is actually there) and inference (what you think is going on) interact. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, scientists performed a series of tests to look at how the brain responds to other people.

In the experiment, test subjects watched actors search for hidden toys. When the subjects observed the actors, several brain networks were active, indicating that these various areas were working together. The human mirror neuron system (MNS) has a role in this reasoning process, and interestingly, the brain response differed if the test subject knew where the toy was hidden.1

Think of a hand in the cookie jar. You would infer that someone is trying to get a cookie out, even if you know the jar is empty. People apply the same reasoning to leaders--they automatically assume you know the answers because you are the one “in charge”.

The odds of me coming into the rocket business, not knowing anything about rockets, not having ever built anything, I mean, I would have to be insane if I thought the odds were in my favour.

Elon Musk

Give Yourself The ‘ok’ To Say I Don’t Know

We often make quick assumptions about others. But, these assumptions aren’t always correct. No one would have assumed that Elon Musk would create a fleet of space-going vehicles, or that the first private passenger would be getting ready to go to the moon on one of his rockets. You can give yourself permission to correct others if someone falsely assumes you know the information they seek.

Saying “I don’t know” isn’t a sign of weakness or failure. It simply means you don’t have the answer right at that moment. Instead of hemming or hawing (the verbal equivalent of shuffling your feet), show strong ethics and smile, say you don’t know, and then consider following up with one of these:

  • You’ll be happy to find the answer. If it’s something you probably should know, but it’s slipped your mind, or you haven’t had time to read the briefing yet, give yourself some time to find the answer.
  • You don’t know but so and so might. It’s OK to direct people to your staff. A leader doesn’t know all the answers, and one leader can’t do all the work. Surround yourself with knowledgeable, creative, and innovative talent. Someone will know the answer (or how to build the rocket!).

Increasing Performance Through Ethical Behavior

Not admitting the truth is a lie. You can’t really sugarcoat that fact. Today’s volatile political climate reiterates how important ethics are for leaders. Learning how the brain is engaged during decision making helps leaders make better choices. The i4 Neuroleader Model sets the stage for ethical decisions by honing mental health alongside physical health.2

Leaders with a high level of performance are confident and comfortable admitting when they don’t know something. Improved decision-making skills, efficiency, and resourcefulness are possible when the brain and body are working together for success. After all, it’s not rocket science, or is it?

1. Ramsey R, Hamilton AF de C. How does your own knowledge influence the perception of another person’s action in the human brain? Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. 2012;7(2):242-251. doi:10.1093/scan/nsq102.
McLennan K. Building Leaders for the Imagination Age: The Case for the i4 Neuroleader Model. About my Brain Institute. 2016;1. [White Paper].

Originally posted on: 8 January 2019
Last updated on: 18 February 2024
Silvia Damiano

Silvia Damiano

Founder & CEO
About my Brain Institute

Scientist, educator, author, speaker, coach, award-winning leadership specialist, filmmaker and creator of the i4 Neuroleader Model & Methodology.

Silvia's scientific background and curiosity about the human brain led her to a decade long journey of research into optimal brain functioning and the application of neuroscience in leadership and daily life. Her past and current roles have uniquely prepared her for the current undertaking, that of leadership activist & change agent.

Silvia Damiano founded The About my Brain Institute in 2009, with the purpose of democratising leadership & neuroscience. She has a passionately held belief, that leaders in our 21st century global economy and their organisations must radically change long-held ideas of what constitutes effective leadership

In her ground-breaking books ‘Leadership is Upside Down’, ‘Brain-Friendly Leadership’ and the 2018 documentary ‘Make Me A Leader’, Silvia provides both compelling evidence and explores the importance of leadership in our personal and professional lives and what it takes to develop the human behind the leader.

Silvia has worked in different countries, across many industries, helping teams and organisations improve business performance. Silvia’s clients have described her as a passionate, dynamic, a highly experienced speaker and master facilitator on the topics of Emotional Intelligence, Cultural Change, Neuroleadership & Engagement.

Silvia is passionate about leaving a legacy of well-rounded leaders who can act and decide in a way that better serves humanity. Her clients include Microsoft, Australian Stock Exchange, NSW Government, VISA, Fuji Xerox and Manpower amongst many other global companies.

No Comments Yet

Let us know what you think