Counter-Intuitive Shifts to Ignorant, Slow, and Significantly Limited

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

Best self.

*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.

  • Great article, love your self reflection and how it prompts my own. And I am going to take the action you advise by raising my hand to ask a question about your post script. “What do you mean by Always Think from Right to Left”? Did I miss a prior blog on the topic (I read these regularly)? R-L thinking sound “inside the box” to me. I must be missing something and do feel vulnerable asking, but hey, I am embracing my igonorance here!

    • Susan,
      Thanks for the compliment and especially for the compliment of action.
      I should write a blog post about A TRTL – Always Think Right To Left. (It IS too inside baseball.)
      In short: Imagine a timeline – whether your entire life, 10 years out, or the end of this very meeting – that’s the “right” side, and then think your way back to the left!

  • Dear Professor Mulhern,

    The Biden administration is ignorant, slow, and significantly limited, most especially as it pertains to the over $1,860,000,000,000 of student loan debt suffocating over 44.7 million people in the United States.

    Your wife is the Secretary of Energy. What’s sad, yet not surprising, is that Biden is permitting more oil and gas drilling permits on public land than Trump was– an average of 333 drilling permits per month compared to Trump’s 245. He also approved oil and gas drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico just shortly after the United Nations Climate Change Conference, during which the largest delegation was, of course, the fossil fuel tycoons’ representatives. The Democratic Party’s platform still is enshrined with massive fossil fuel subsidies.

    Your wife is not powerless. In fact, she is in the seat of power. You are not powerless. You have much room for influence.

    You can be more outspoken, firm, dedicated, committed, passionate, relentless, and concerted in making a crucial issue such as student loan debt forgiveness by President Biden a driving focus of yours.

    The Biden administration’s policy from January 20, 2021, onwards has been exactly as he promised his donors– that “nothing would fundamentally change.”

    Biden has been captive to the war machine owned by Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, and Boeing from day one. Biden picked a Raytheon Board Director, Lloyd Austin, as his Secretary of Defense– and Austin is still financially profiting around $1,700,000 from his former Raytheon role. Also, what an Orwellian euphemism that title is; Secretary of War used from its inception until 1947 was so much more accurate and transparent a title.

    Biden’s war budget for 2022 is $768,000,000,000. It’s only grown since the time of the Trump administration because the war machine owns the establishment and entrenched core of the U.S. political duopoly.

    Biden’s entire political career since his 1973 Senate days has been subservience to the billionaires and power elite, with some occasional attention to making meager and symbolic concessions when the pressure on him is far too unbearably high.

    Just because Biden can be friendly to you and those in the political scene, Bernie Sanders included — though Biden is notorious for his constant barrage of absurd and downright awful misstatements and outright lies– doesn’t mean he should not be treated forcefully in the demands of ordinary people in the struggle for dignity, decency, justice, freedom, and ultimately a better world. Biden stands to block progress, just as Martin Luther King foretold about the white moderate in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

    But instead, Biden supports the Saudi Arabian government’s genocidal intervention against precious children in Yemen– over 400,000 children under the age of five are severely malnourished. The mass starvation death toll is worsened by a cruel blockade enabled by the Biden admin. In fact, not too long ago, he approved a $650 million arms deal to Saudi Arabia to commit more mass murder in Yemen.

    Biden put out all that symbolic talk and promising rhetoric after the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi had his head chopped off by Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman’s assassins, yet still, Biden practically won’t move a finger. That military and oil/gas cooperation is just too precious for him. Yemeni kids, apparently, are not.

    General platitudes do not benefit the millions of suffering Americans nearly the way that substantive, material improvements do.

    Through the Higher Education Act of 1965 signed into law by Lyndon Baines Johnson, the President of the U.S. through the Secretary of Education has the power to, “enforce, pay, compromise, waive, or release any right, title, claim, lien, or demand, however acquired, including any equity or any right of redemption” 20 U.S.C. § 1082(a)(6) (emphasis added).

    Biden has the existing authority to take this action all by himself through executive order. Mind you, there are 42.3 million Americans holding federal student loan debt, and the average student loan debt for new college graduates is $30,000. For as much as you speak on diversity, equity, and inclusion, forcing Biden to forgive student loan debt would be one of the most powerful mechanisms to significantly close the egregious racial wealth gap and offer more of a remedy– if even incomplete– to the sickening U.S. legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, Jane Crow, lynchings, redlining, human experimentation, and mass incarceration (which Biden was a chief architect of via the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act he penned during the Clinton administration).

    Biden doesn’t need Congress. Also, mind you, it’s been Biden and Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi who have each said they want a principled, strong Republican opposition. Quite fitting how they look out for the power elite and not much else.

    Please raise your voice about any of the issues I mentioned and please do so publicly so we can all see you hold Biden’s feet to the fire. Back door, cigar-smoke-filled room dealings by the Democratic party elite will not aid poor and working people of the U.S. and the world but will only inflict austerity or barely manage the crisis at the edge of collapse in an already highly rigged system.

    Achieving student loan debt forgiveness would be an especially fitting, tangible change for you to push for since you are an educator at one of the most prestigious public institutions of higher learning in the world.

    Please, let me see your best, Professor Mulhern.

    Kousha Modanlou

    • Kousha,

      You have woven a compelling story, taking my words and cleverly (a compliment) transplanting them to make your argument. It is a passionate argument. It is tangent to the topic I am taking on and the nature of this blog (I realize that your point is that I SHOULD stretch out of my work and advocate in 5 or 6 other ways that are deeply important to your sense of justice).

      I will make two comments. First, I think it’s cool that you are using YOUR voice, stepping outside roles and hierarchy to attempt to inspire and challenge action. Bravo.

      As you are “offering me coaching,” I would in return offer (unsolicited by you) coaching that if you want to be HEARD – as opposed to just speak, think, wax persuasively, and vent – you might consider how you can do so effectively. In your “comment,” you are speaking truth to (my perceived) power, and asking me to speak truth to power. I love that line (from RFK, I believe). Yet, I am obsessed with the question: HOW? I think about Mohamed Bouazizi, or the brothers of Thich Nhat Than who set themselves on fire to bring Vietnam to its senses. Wow.

      How do we advance our issues – issues that burn in our hearts and guts? How do we choose our battles? And how do we communicate into others’ complex realities? I assume you can appreciate that my wife’s efforts to – and I speak with knowledge of how inflated this sounds – “save the globe” and “create great jobs in renewable energy” – is a pretty important priority. How do we make your issue(s) not detract from hers? How do I raise issues with her, when we hardly have time to catch up on 3 kids and a grandson? In my case, Kousha, I have to balance my own messaging about politics, with my central messages and inquiry around leadership. I don’t write about politics, because I don’t want to inadvertently interfere with my wife’s work, and because people don’t come to this site (in their busy time) to read about politics.

      Maybe you should write a guest blog on “how to effectively speak truth to power.” What a great topic!



      • Dear Professor Mulhern,

        I would love to begin my retort by tremendously thanking you for the self-examination and leadership lessons that you and your class afforded me.

        You certainly shared information that any interested person— in a variety of disciplines and actionable arenas—whether well-intentioned or ill-intentioned, can make use of. Tools, which can be used for the betterment of one’s life and more so the lives of all human beings on this planet. Or tools that can be used to perpetuate stagnation, and even worse, the continued ravaging of human life. I am glad to have equipped my arsenal with what you brought to the table.

        Further, thank you for that observation— yes I did intend to effectively transplant a point you were driving home to a particularly applicable matter. And moreover, I appreciate your recognition of my passion for these causes toward human progress and your express realization of the actionable recourse I suggested.

        Your first clearly indicated comment is warmly received— inspiring and challenging action is my every intention; your taking notice of it is benevolent.

        Your second comment is also something I often think over carefully; it frequently permeates during my self-reflection time– being effective. As it is a necessary and indispensable complement to pursuing and advocating a righteous cause. How big one’s platform is. How far their microphone reaches. The ethos– one of the modes of persuasion that Aristotle spoke on– manifests through educational background, title, work experience, licenses, testing, follower count, popularity, authority, credibility, recognition, achievements, and so on.

        I completely get where you’re coming from and, in fact, I even considered it before reaching out. In the sense that I considered I developed a relationship of mutual respect with you and various students in the course throughout the first six academic weeks of the Summer of 2020.

        I considered that both through Zoom and on my digital professional profile, you spoke quite eloquently about my abilities. Once again, very much obliged for that generous gesture you took upon yourself to carry out.

        I considered that you are in a position to directly influence power, be that your beloved wife or any other Executive Branch figure (or those in the Michigan state government and across your highly expansive network, in general). As you allude to, quality time with an individual’s loved ones and a robust support system are universal requirements in making the best out of the human experience.

        Working to “save the globe” and “create great jobs in renewable energy” is also directly aligned with many of my aspirations to help forge a better world— an important priority, as you say, alongside other crucial priorities.

        Further, I understand that you are in a relatively unique position since your personal life and political life are so essential to your identity (going back to your days as First Gentleman of Michigan). Yet for self-preservation and, of course, your overall happiness and emotional & mental well-being, you must— as probably all sensible people would— compartmentalize those different elements of your life.

        Therefore, that you don’t normally write about politics is understandable to me. That your preference is to cultivate those leadership tools to many generations of people— both younger and older. I have benefited from such and, with certainty, I know many others have too.

        All the aforementioned in the previous paragraph being said, I recognize that politics has occasionally manifested itself in your teaching— specific historical & political developments and influential leaders have definitely shown up in your leadership course at the Haas School of Business. And undoubtedly, that reflects the axiom that life in general and world politics are so closely intertwined, as long as one seeks to scratch the surface.

        I truly enjoyed your example of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who after being horrendously harassed by the authorities of Ben Ali’s regime lit himself on fire, finally dying from his injuries in Jan 2011– both literally & figuratively igniting the Arab Spring. The history and current events of the Middle East are a considerable interest of mine, so that reference is one I was familiar with and it is very well taken.

        I had not previously heard of (or at least cannot recall hearing about) those who lit themselves on fire in Vietnam during the enormously deleterious US intervention. The US war followed that of France against its former colony. Following World War 2, Vietnam (like Algeria, another French colony) once more resolutely brought its desire for independence to the forefront. That request was not a new one. It was one that President Thomas Woodrow “White Supremacist” Wilson scoffed at when Ho Chi Minh earnestly asked for his country’s liberty shortly following WW1– for Wilson to actually honor the core tenets of his Fourteen Points. And let’s not forget that by the end of the greedy & gluttonous French aggression in Vietnam from 1946 to 1954, the US was funding ~80% of the calamitous French war effort.

        I enjoyed doing some research on these prior Vietnamese parallels to Bouazizi. Also, if you have not previously watched it, I highly recommend watching the recent Spike Lee film Da 5 Bloods (on Netflix) as it brings a new, refreshing, and compelling perspective to the US war in Vietnam.

        While I have never even considered the act of self-immolation as a personal course of action— I don’t find it a pragmatic or helpful mechanism to drive home and actualize changes I would like to create in the world— I definitely recognize that those who have done so, much like those who go on hunger strikes, seek to foremost bring attention to a typically serious cause. And in doing so, they are usually pretty successful. But alas, inherent to such brutal destruction of the self, comes the fact that one’s further contributions to society are brought to the same immediate & instant halt that their life is.

        Knowing that I still keep myself active in a variety of ways beyond the work I do for my two employers.

        In Los Angeles, I have attended a rally for Palestinian human rights after in May 2021 the Israeli government slaughtered tens of precious children and hundreds of innocent civilians in Gaza, destroyed the Associated Press news building, obliterated the roads to hospitals, and continued the cruel nightmare of essentially the world’s largest open-air prison where practically over 95% of the drinking water is contaminated. I have also attended a rally for universal healthcare through Medicare for All.

        I have spoken on a number of pundits/journalists’ programs—and plan to continue doing so— through the application Callin (which as the name implies, allows the readers/listeners/viewers to call in with questions, comments, concerns, challenges, and feedback). One of these pundits is Briahna Joy Gray, the former press secretary of Bernie Sanders.

        I incorporate discussions about current events, history, and world affairs as a staple in my daily life with most— if not all— of my friends, family, neighbors, acquaintances, professors I maintain friendships with, people at the dog park, and so on.

        During Spring 2020, I even canvassed door-to-door for the Bernie Sanders campaign, displayed two of his posters on different sides of my former Berkeley apartment (at a highly traversed intersection), had (and still have) his bumper sticker on my car, mentioned his campaign frequently in conversations with those around me at the time, attended his rally on the old waterfront factory in Richmond, went to a town hall discussion in San Francisco hosted by Representative Pramila Jayapal on behalf of Bernie’s campaign, and so on.

        But the Bernie campaign is never where I planned to end my contributions to help make a better world, because not only was I disappointed by Bernie’s lack of firm political will and sturdy spine in some of the most critically deciding moments (and some of his political calculations & stances even now) but also because I have no intention to limit my change-making endeavors to just one person’s presidential campaign.

        And to your final point, I am immensely flattered and privileged to receive the offer mentioned in your last paragraph. It would be my great delight to write a guest blog. Please feel free to email me ( and I will be happy to work out the details.

        Once again, I am grateful for all your time and consideration. Take care.

        Kousha Modanlou

  • Braver to say, “I don’t know,” than to say, “I am not certain. And often more accurate. I don’t know, we need to work on this, it is important.” And to get questions asked, say, “What are your questions,” instead of, “Do you have any questions.” By asking, “Do you have any questions,” you set off the idea that maybe they should be smart enough to not have any questions.

    • Mark John,
      I always enjoy your comments. I was going to write “I don’t know.” In a way it is more honest. I used the expression “not certain,” intentionally for two reasons. First, it’s easier on the speaker’s ego, to say “I’m not certain” than to say “I don’t know.” I also had some sense that it invited dialogue a little more. That was the intuitive sense that I can’t well explain. And “I don’t know” certainly applies here. I don’t and appreciate your input.
      I love your second distinction. Ask, “What are your questions?” I would add there is a second reason is that asking, “Do you have any questions?” goes back to the problem that (a) people don’t want to ‘admit’ ignorance, and (b) it seems to presuppose that people don’t have questions, when they ALWAYS have questions!
      I always enjoy our dialogues, Mark John.
      Be well,

  • I so enjoy reading your posts—each time it’s like discovering a shiny, new tool in the tool chest of life. Yes! You do, indeed, walk this talk. During my own leadership and organizational development studies: A competent individual, demonstrating steadfast humility is one of the most potent leadership qualities. That, combined with an inexhaustible curiosity — another of your finest qualities — is the foundation of “leadership in the service of others” and “always be learning,” both hallmarks of a Jesuit education (where I attended for grad and post grad) . Thanks for sharing your very insightful post here. Moreover, if I may add (as it’s something my husband/life partner and I discuss regularly when we approach a problem set, whether personal or professional), we often say “how are we going to science this?” which is a signal to lose the ego, explore what is known for certain and what needs to be discovered or known…to solve the problem(s). I know that cue helps me remember to separate my self from the situation at hand. And to be open to just how much I don’t know but need to learn in that instance.

    When I was 16, I matriculated to university so I can absolutely relate to being the poster child of being in such a damn hurry. Now, at 50, I’m also learning to hit those brakes and recognize how little I know. But, what I DO now know is to ask A LOT MORE questions. And I think that captures the TIME dimension of your TRTL? An effective leader knows WHEN to make a decision because you can’t be in fact-gathering mode in perpetuity. So, I take this to mean it’s a sort of “begin with the end in mind,” but with the speed bumps to remind us to get there when it’s the right time. I’m in my infancy in learning this one. But I’m also aspiring to be much more “ISSL” as I TRTL. I hope I’m fully understanding the nuance of these points! Oh, and thanks for TWO shiny, new tools in this post. [And, it strikes me that we can refer to Leadership as a practice; “…are you the CEO? “…yes, I practice leadership.” It’s a journey, especially for the dude(ette) and 2x leaders at the top.]

  • You’re cool, Dan…chill! But thanks for reminding the rest of us. I guess I have never learned to forget the psych chills of elementary playgrounds.

  • >