People often ask me about the things I learned at the CIA that I bring into my role as a CEO and advisor to other executives, and one of the most valuable lessons is this: a deeply-ingrained awareness that there is always so much we don’t know.
You see, at the Agency, we’d often get pilloried in the press for perceived failures and balls seemingly dropped. And we could never defend ourselves – or shout about our victories – because our work is classified. We had to let the press and the public believe their version of the “truth” because we couldn’t counter it with our classified facts. And we had to celebrate our wins in the shadows.
And what that taught me about being a leader is that no matter how good, how thorough, how much we think we know, there is always, always, ALWAYS something hidden from us (even if it’s not classified). And because that is true, we have to remain mentally humble and open to being disproven. We have to become learning leaders who acknowledge that we don’t know everything. And we have to accept that sometimes our version of the “truth” may be seriously flawed because of all the facts we don’t have access to.
But instead of feeling despaired by this, we can turn all that we don’t know into a source of strength. We can recognize that good ideas can come from somewhere else. We can recognize we don’t need to have all the answers. We can recognize that the unknowns can be a source of power if we let it be. Because instead of pretending we are omniscient, we can invite others to correct us, challenge us, or simply expand us by all that they know that we don’t. And we can become better, smarter, stronger in the process.
It’s so tempting to think our power has to come from being all-knowing; but real power comes from accepting that we don’t and then training ourselves to become all-growing instead.