Is ignorance ever a good thing in leadership?
Strangely, sometimes it’s amazing. And other times it’s deadly.
All of this probably seems a little weird, because you were told that ignorance is always a bad thing. So you’ve studied hard, researched to the Nth degree and are essentially a walking Wikipedia of knowledge about your subject.
Often, people will tell you that what you don’t know is a massive disadvantage, which can be incredibly discouraging when you’re a young leader and can’t possibly know as much as a 50-year-old.
Not so fast, and not always.
Sometimes, your ignorance is an advantage. If you know too much, you’ll end up pulling your punches or boldly setting out in a new direction.
By contrast, as you age you can become ineffective because you know a lot about strategy, probabilities and details.
What’s the occasion for every leader when ignorance is deadly? It’s when you don’t know nearly enough about yourself.
We’ll tackle both scenarios in this post.
Let’s start with the positive and the question of how ignorance works to your advantage as a leader, especially when you’re young.
How Ignorance Can Help You
Often the world gets changed by people who simply didn’t realize it couldn’t be changed.
Having heard or read about the stories of hundreds of business founders and church leaders, there’s a common theme among many young and effective leaders: often they’ll tell you they didn’t know it couldn’t be done. So they just did it.
That’s why two guys working out of a garage can create the biggest computer company in the world.
Or why Walt Disney pressed on to build a theme park when no one really saw the value of creating an attraction that families would visit.
Or why one of the fastest growing and largest churches in the history of New England got planted by a leader who never thought he’d lead a church. (You can hear that story here.)
Looking back on things, I’ve seen that dynamic at work (by accident) in my own leadership. I never thought I’d be in ministry, and after studying law, went into seminary and half way through started at three very small churches that hadn’t grow in decades. I didn’t know a lot about church leadership then. Cue the advantage.
For years by the time I got there, most denominational leaders had written off these tiny, care-taker congregations I now led. With average attendances of 6, 14 and 23, it’s no wonder the three churches weren’t taken seriously and no one had much hope for their future, including the current attenders.
One of the great advantages I had as their new leader was I didn’t know they couldn’t grow, and I didn’t know new life wasn’t possible.
When we started to grow and proposed amalgamating all three 100+ year old churches into a new church with a new name and a new mission, people told me again and again it would never work— that mergers almost always failed. Of course, they were right. But I didn’t believe it.
I did just enough research to learn what made most mergers fail, but not much more. We avoided that pitfall (hint, it involves moving into the building of the largest of the amalgamating churches), and blazed ahead anyway.
Don’t get me wrong, I read and consulted widely, but my research was focused on how to make it work, not on why it would fail.
Looking back on it, I realize the odds may have been against us, but that’s what makes for great moments and great movements.
I also realize looking back on it that while I had a general knowledge of church plants, I wasn’t exactly a specialist when we started Connexus Church, but after some harrowing moments, we made it.
Not knowing the downside, or even the odds of failure can be your friend as a leader.
As I look back on my last decade in writing books, blogging and podcasting, I see a similar trend at work. I’d read a lot of books before I started writing, but I never studied writing. I just wrote. Four books later, it seems to have worked fairly well.
Ditto with blogging and podcasting. Sometimes you just start. And consistency, hard work and real-time learning—as well as a lot of grace—can carry you places you wouldn’t ordinarily go.
So what principles can guide you through what to focus on and what to ignore? Here are three that I hope can help.
1. Focus on what’s possible, not what’s probable
Ignorance works to your advantage when you focus on what’s possible, not what’s probable.
It’s probably that your church plant or new business will fail. Most do. But it’s possible that it won’t.
Having too many negative voices around the table telling you why it won’t work…doesn’t work.
Leaders are dealers in hope. And sometimes that means you have to hope agains the odds and believe against the possibilities, and just do it.
Be aware of what’s probable, but focus on what’s possible.
2. Know where the major potholes lie
Does all of this mean you blindly jump into things unaware of any issues? Of course not.
I knew enough about church mergers to know where the major potholes were. I knew the amalgamation wasn’t about preserving what was, but creating something new. I also knew momentum makes mergers successful…and we had significant momentum before we merged. I also realized moving into one of the existing buildings was a big mistake, because churches that do that tend to reduce back to the size of the largest congregation.
So we put all three buildings on the auction block and started from scratch, together.
Similarly, when we launched Connexus, I knew you needed a critical mass before you launch, a clear mission and vision, decent funding and a lot of hardworking and determination. Is it more complicated than that? Sure. But not much.
One major obstacle to all of the above is simply lack of determination and consistency.
Most podcasts die because 12 episodes in, their leaders get overwhelmed and stop shipping. Church planters and leaders get lost in the details and lose their nerve and their hope. Most people who never write books fail to write one simply because they either don’t start one or don’t finish it.
It’s really not that complicated.
3. Don’t get paralyzed by the details
One of the challenges in leadership today is you can google yourself into a million details. And soon, you’ll realize everything you don’t know. Or you’ll get so overwhelmed by details that you won’t act, because there are 10,000 things that could go wrong.
Details matter, but you can you can easily fall prey to paralysis by analysis.
The best leadership is visionary leadership.
Want to see something fun? Love or hate Steve Jobs, there was a powerful moment at the WWDC in 1997 when Jobs had just returned to Apple (“Oh, you mean like transforming Pixar and launching Toy Story??? And what exactly were you doing?” Sorry…that was me, not Steve Jobs).
During a live Q and A, a critic rather rudely and arrogantly accuses Jobs of not knowing enough about Java Script to be an effective leader, and then asked him what he’d been doing with the last seven years of his life after being exiled from Apple.
Jobs response is fascinating not only because it’s uncharacteristically humble, but because he admits he doesn’t know a lot of the details, and refocuses the answer on his vision, the customer and the team. It’s also fascinating because this is before the invention of the iPod and a decade before the introduction of the iPhone.
In many ways, the critic—who focused on the details and what Jobs didn’t know—was right. And he was completely wrong.
I don’t know who the critic is. I doubt anyone does now. My guess is he didn’t quite have the impact on the world that Jobs or Apple did.
And that’s the problem with critics. It’s easy to figure out what’s wrong. It’s hard to stay focused on what’s right.
You should really watch the exchange.
Negative views almost never lead to a positive vision for the future.
How Is Ignorance Hurts You
So now you see how ignorance can work for you, but it can also work against you, and it can be devastating.
Of all the areas in which ignorance can work against you, when it comes to self-awareness, ignorance is deadly.
Centuries ago, John Calvin, was trying to figure out the meaning of life, he began his treatise on Christianity and religion with this line: “Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God.”
It’s fascinating that a man known for his theology (his thinking would later be called Calvinism) began with self-knowledge. Calvin believed that those who don’t know themselves will never fully know God.
That’s a challenge for those of us who call ourselves Christians. Some- times Christians can over-spiritualize life. It’s so much easier to look upward or outward than it is to look inward.
To look inward—to hold our lives up to a mirror—exposes the depth of our failings, and frankly, most of us would rather focus on the failings of others. But Calvin started there.
If you ever hope to really know God, you need to know yourself.
Let me ask you a question: How well do you know yourself? Truly?
A Game-Changer in Self-Awareness
Helping leaders become more self-aware in 7 critical areas is why I wrote my latest book, Didn’t See It Coming. One reader called it a game-changer in self-awareness, another said it provided outstanding insight for his personal journey. (You can sample the over 225 reviews here.)
The book is about overcoming the 7 greatest challenges that everyone experiences and no one expects—things like cynicism, pride, compromise, emptiness and burnout. These are the things you can’t afford to ignore because they cap your leadership or sometimes take you right out of leadership.
Self-awareness is the master key that opens up all the doors of your life. It makes you a better leader, a better spouse, a better parent, a better friend and a better follower of Jesus.
Self-aware people understand their strengths, their weaknesses, their limits and above all, their impact on others.
If you want to reach the full potential of your life and leadership, become deeply self-aware.
You can learn more about Didn’t See It Coming and get your copy here.
Curious as to your level of self-awareness?
We’ve developed a couple of quick quizzes to help you assess your level of self-awareness on two key leadership issues: cynicism and burnout.
To find out what your cynicism level is, take this quiz.
To learn whether you’re burning out, take this quiz.
I hope my new book will help you’s spot the issues most leaders never see coming.
What Are You Learning?
When has ignorance helped you?
When has it hurt you?
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