May I boast for a minute?
I am Ignorant, Slow, and Significantly Limited.
This would have been impossible for me to see in my 20s or 30s or even 40s.
Because of my own identity or self-image, I couldn’t have seen myself as ignorant, slow or significantly limited, and so I would certainly not let others see that I might be.
1. Ignorant. The word itself was a playground slur, a way of demeaning others. In your neighborhood, too? At some point along the way, maybe 5th, 6th or 7th grade, teachers would hear the insult hurled and insist that “stupid” and “ignorant” were very different things. They’d complement that distinction with the ancient wisdom that “there’s no such thing as a stupid question.” But, hey, folks, the damage was done and imprinted deep in our young minds.
I see this imprint reveal itself daily at Berkeley, an elite global university. Nobody wants to look stupid, oops, I mean ignorant. Maybe 2 out of 50 students will venture an answer when they aren’t sure, and maybe 2 others will venture a question. What a terrific loss!!!! We lose so much individual and group learning when ignorance is disdained. We lose when it’s a fundamental definition question, like a student asking, “What does ROI, DWWSWWD or TRTL mean?* Without the foundation of such definitions, somebody(ies) are falling behind fast. Or the question may feel ignorant but actually be quite profound, like the so-often unasked question: “I’m sorry just what is success for us?”
The best way leaders can lower the stigma and heighten question-asking is to set the example: Embrace their ignorance: To learn!!! And to generate a culture that knows it’s cool…to not be cool. Perhaps the most important words a manager can utter are, “I’m not certain.” This statement models the value of open-mindedness, pursuing knowledge and wisdom. What if you were much more proud of your ignorance than your knowledge (after all, Google and Wikipedia know more than all of us, but just not as ignorant!)
2. I’m Slow. Me? Hah! I was the obnoxious poster child. In elementary school, I could hardly experience a more forceful rush of adrenaline than when I prepared to shoot my hand up to answer Sister Joan Paul faster than Rose Marantette and Paul Bodnar could. The risk-reward generated the adrenaline. The risk if I put my hand up too fast was I could get caught with my pants down and my ignorance spreading visibly beet red to the surface of my cheeks. Ah, but the reward of being the fastest – wahoo. “How does he do that math problem so fast?” I imagined others thinking. Speed training was indeed a good prep for Harvard Law School, political or academic arguments to follow. Be as fast as possible (but without making a fool of myself).
I’m still deprogramming. What gets me into the biggest problems in my marriage, as a parent, or as a professional is speed – a false sense of urgency – and needing to be right and right fast. I have reflected on the example of Chuck Wilbur. How in executive team meetings with the Governor (Granholm), Chuck was almost never the first out of the gate. He listened, learned, distilled, and then tested his thoughts or tested ours. I’ve never distilled spirits, but I understand it takes some time! Competitive speed generates unhelpful competition and closes the mind.
Slowing the pace may be even more important when it comes to feeling(s); and feeling is most important for developing collaboration, mutual respect and powerful group learning. One of the most viral words these days is “triggered.” Could there be a better image for speed? Think of the twitching trigger finger (for example, the truly tragic police officer who thought she was tazing a suspect when in fact she was shooting him to death). It’s not my place to judge nor forgive, but I empathize because of my own uncontrolled, reflexive knee-jerk speed that has caused me to say things I wished I’d never said. What if great manager-leader-parents aren’t fast, commanding, impressing, but are instead impressive for being judicious, humble, slow, and curious, and thus let issues get shaped from all sides?
3. Significantly Limited. This third shift, which age and experience can allow is to embrace one’s severe limitations in ability. This past week, I worked shoulder to shoulder with my colleague Ashton. She and I were organizing my complicated calendar for the first quarter. At some IT firms, they utilize “paired programming,” in which two coders work like Ashton and I were, sharing a single screen and keyboard. Both are wonderful examples of “leading by two.” As Ashton and I looked at all the tradeoffs – of time and opportunity cost – with respect to my commitments to Mom, Jen, adult kids, grandson Dylan; business colleagues, clients, and students, I could feel my anxiety. I don’t mean that metaphorically. I was physically tensing. Ashton, on the other hand, was continually reducing complexities to simple choices, eliminating ones that she quickly showed to be suboptimal, questioning me to clarify my priorities. I was amazed if not stunned at how differently we were skilled. I was watching a pro!
It made me wonder at the extraordinary losses in time and productivity I long-suffered – and the increases in mental strain and anxiety – by thinking of myself as “really smart.” I am smart. . . in some types of thinking, but I am so unskilled in others. If the activity Ashton and I had shared was scored like an exam, she would have gotten a 99% and I would have flunked. And thanks to the stress, I would have come out of the exam “pitted out” as my kids would say.
Likewise, in strategic work with our clients, I have felt a push-and-pull with my partner Laura. My ego and identity were getting in the way. I couldn’t see my limits and as a consequence, I couldn’t see her strengths. But I realized she is much better than I am at taking the first cut. I shouldn’t even try. Then, I may suggest changes and even go back to “first principles” to rethink her plan. But we are way better off when she takes the first swing. Kouzes & Posner write that: “Credible leaders accept and act on the paradox of power. We become more powerful when we give our power away.” I used to think with an attitude of “I can probably do this better than him, but because I only have 50-60 hours per week, I should spread the work to get it all done.” As I become more and more honest about my significant limits though, I gladly give the work away – for efficiency, but especially for others to bring their significant strengths.
When I was young, I had to prove myself. There is truth – I’m not denying it – that in law, business, politics and education people seem to look for those three attributes: super knowledge, super speed, and superb mental range. I see clearly now it led to super stress, super inefficiency, and probably what was – or certainly looked like to others– superb and disempowering arrogance.
Whether we are 20, 40, or 60, we’d do well to question the kinds of assumptions that have truly held me back. I made it so much harder to lead with others and with my
*ROI = Return on Investment, DWWSWWD = Do What We Say We Will Do, and my invented acronym A TRTL: Always Think from Right To Left. Over 150 students groaned a big “Ohhhhh” out loud, when at the end of the semester, one asked, “why the turtle (trtl) you’ve been talking about all semester?” I had not realized that all my pictures of turtles and all my talk of “trtl it” or “think trtl” was completely lost on them. No one had raised it until then.