founder of naked leader

The three most difficult words for any leader to say

The three most difficult words for any leader to say

IDK_BWTime to Read: I don’t know

The three most difficult words for any leader to say

“I don’t know”

Why so difficult?

  • It makes us look ignorant / stupid
  • An admission of failure
  • Much advice says if you know the answer, give the answer – if you don’t, pretend to know the answer
  • Why so important and powerful as a leader?
  • Your role is to lead – you cannot know the answer to everything, it is impossible – make sure you have people in your team who do
  • It is a brave admission that cuts through many company cultures, where people clearly don’t know the answer and then spend 5 minutes waffling, only proving they didn’t know the answer in the first place
  • It shows honesty – imagine in UK Prime Minister’s Questions if just once, just once please, the Prime Minister answered a question with “I don’t know – I will find out and come back to you.”

See what happens when you say it this week, please let me know (in the comments below), because at the moment, I don’t.

With my love and best wishes



14 Responses to The three most difficult words for any leader to say

  1. Hi,

    thanks for this but there are three possible answers.
    1) I know and here is the answer …
    2) I don’t know etc…
    3) I know, but cannot tell you at this time. some information may need to be kept under wraps


  2. I whole heatedly agree David. As a senior leader it has taken me some time to realise this and I actually now enjoy admitting to my teams when I don’t know the answer and then challenging us all to invent it together …. try it, it’s liberating and earns you much greater respect. It also leads to a much better answer with greater buy-in becuase you came up with it collaboratively!!!

  3. To say “I don’t know”, it’s not a fault, it’s not a sin. it’s just to ackowledge that one as everyone has limits.

  4. Better to be honest and declare you don’t know than to blunder on doing something you have no knowledge of, only to make a fool of yourself.
    Be up front about it and everybody will respect you that little bit more, not less.

  5. Great post and another taboo that needs busting. I think the need for certainty is another leftover from our Neanderthal brain. Imagine the scene, Cave-child asks: “Daddy, is that a bison or a sabre-toothed tiger out there in the bush?” Daddy replies: “I don’t know, son, let me think about it.” Does he heck… Caveman Dad 100% knows the difference between dinner and being dinner and his ability to know and decide quickly was the difference between life and death. The corporate jungle is not so different, however plush the carpets in our boardrooms… But the benefit of saying ‘I don’t know’ to someone else is that it can be the start of beautiful coaching conversations where you discover more amazing answers than your Neanderthal brain could ever dared to imagine. Dx

  6. It’s the know it alls who are the irritating ones.
    It’s not weakness to say you don’t know, or don’t understand. Isn’t that part of the fun of life? To learn?
    None of us know everything. We may pretend we do sometimes although what’s the point?
    The more we don’t understand in life means there is more of an opportunity to discover. Finding out can be the fun part.

  7. Yes but too many mistakes can mean you lose money in business, there has to be a fine line.
    Anybody who is mistake-ridden should be warned because getting it right in business is so important.

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