At the US Naval Academy we could only answer “Yes sir!” “No sir!” and “I’ll find out sir!” — responding “I don’t know” was strictly forbidden. The reason was, as future junior officers, we needed to learn to take initiative to find out what we didn’t know. “I don’t know” was just too passive.

As a leader, however, I’ve learned that “I don’t know” is one of the most powerful things you can say (especially when you don’t actually know!).

The reason is because when the leader says “I don’t know” it allows and encourages three things in your organization:

  1. It allows others to say “I don’t know” rather than guessing and making up answers.
  2. It allows others to ask hard questions in meetings, including hard questions of the leader. If people are worried about protecting the image of an all-knowing leader then hard questions can provoke embarrassment and are avoided.
  3. It opens up the door to learning because all learning starts with “I don’t know.” The degree to which you know something shuts down your interest in learning about something.

So, you might want to follow “I don’t know” with something like “How can we learn more?” but don’t be afraid of “I don’t know.”

Find a reason to say it today.