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Leaders and Parents: "The Fallacy of the All-Knowing Leader"

The fallacy of the all-knowing leader is one that impacts all of us.

Our expectations of our own parents, and our beliefs about our religious, business, and political leaders, have one thing in common: An unreasonable faith in expertise.

I know this firsthand since I am often introduced as an expert.

What does that even mean?

Yes, I have acquired a particular knowledge in my field.

But does that mean I can say with certitude what someone else should or should not do? Does it mean I have a more accurate crystal ball than the average person? Does it mean I don’t make mistakes, or that I’m not kidding myself the way most people do, or that I am smarter and more insightful than anyone else?

Unfortunately, yes, that’s what so many of us want from those who lead and surround us.

We want a surgeon who doesn’t make surgical mistakes.

We want an attorney who doesn’t lose in court.

We want a parent who’s always there for us.

We want a child who never disappoints us.

Though common, these are wildly unobtainable expectations. And yet the critical mistake most leaders make is their knee-jerk, hell-bent desire to deliver on – or exceed – unreasonable expectations.

The result is a preponderance of leaders who seek to please, by thinking they have all the answers and acting like they know more than they know.

The untenable expectations of followers have helped produce a generation of leaders who lack a realistic view of themselves. A realistic view of self is the heart of humility.

“Telling” behavior – thinking I know what others need and telling them what to do – rarely reflects the reality.

“Telling” is a bad idea because it short-circuits the growth potential of followers and keeps them dependent on the leader’s “expertise.”

It also tricks leaders into believing they are all-knowing: “If I tell people what to do, and they do it, I must be a good leader.”

Here are three reasons why you should not tell others what to do:

You should not tell others what to do because doing so communicates lack of faith in the other’s ability to make good decisions.

If you tell others what to do, and you have “position power, “they will most often obey. They will believe in you, but not in themselves. If, instead, you ask them questions, they will be more likely to think for themselves. Do you want obedience or independent thinking from those you lead?

You should not tell others what to do, because if you do, they might reactively do the opposite.

When you push a belief or directive with too much assuredness, it can easily backfire. Maybe they will do it, but only to please you. Or maybe they will rebel and reactively do the opposite, without considering the wisdom or consequences of their actions. Do you want to stimulate that kind of no-thought rebellion?

Third, and most importantly, you should not tell others what to do because you actually don’t know what they should do.

It’s understandable for leaders to automatically give advice, offer solutions, or fix what’s broken. That’s how we’ve been conditioned.

Though we might have hunches about what’s best for others, do we really know?

More thoughtful leaders realize how little they actually know about what others should and shouldn’t do. They accept that their primary responsibility is to help others grow, not to direct their traffic.

If you make a point to extract yourself from The Telling Trap, it will be a journey – and not a quick overnight. It won’t be easy at first to lead with a question or acknowledge your own uncertainty. You may be tempted to revert to the all-knowing “God mode.”

It’s been important for me to learn that, while I possess expertise, that know-how is always partial and limited. Recognizing that I do not know everything almost always bears fruit for those I lead. Instead of me thinking for them, we think together.

Here’s an experiment for leaders at work and at home: Try replacing directives with questions and note what happens.


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