In disruptive times, it is OK not to know, but unacceptable not to lead!


Didier Marlier

September 17, 2020

From Disruption to Engagement

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Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) was a brilliant scientist and science-fiction writer. One of his famous quotes is “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread, winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge!”

More recently, Etienne Klein (a French physicist/philosopher) quoted an amazing poll published in a French daily (Le Parisien): on April 5th 2020, when no one in the scientific community had properly validated/invalidated the impact of a specific drug on Covid-19, the newspaper asked their readers “is that drug able to heal Covid-19?”. Even though nobody could scientifically claim to hold a valid answer, 59% replied positively (this drug heals Covid-19), 20% stated the opposite and only 21% admitted that in the current state of affairs, they did not know (see clip below, in French unfortunately).

 If it is so difficult for the standard readers of a French daily to admit that they don’t know, how often do we see leaders lower their guard and claim that “I don’t know”? What causes leaders to pretend that they know when, in fact, they are just as lost as the rest of us?

  • Belief system: Leaders and followers seem to ignore that, with the exponential explosion of knowledge, leaders are less and less able to have the right answer to all the challenges. Nevertheless, the belief is still that “my license to operate as a leader is to be knowledgeable, otherwise, my credibility is gone” and for the followers, particularly in times of crisis or danger, there is a sort of collective regression, looking for a “leader-saviour”. It is fascinating to note that in countries with a very male chauvinistic culture, people may vote for leaders who they know to be corrupted, as long as those are aggressive, hold strong opinions and ridicule their opponents.
  • Egocentrism: Sometimes, leaders assimilate being right (and knowledgeable) to their ego. The political scene has recently shown such narcissistic leaders (and their faithful followers) claiming falsehoods as science, violently attacking those who would dare to disagree.
  • “Opinionite”: Social networks have dramatically reinforced and generalized what Asimov described here above. It nowadays seems like we are only worth through the opinions we have. And opinion leaders, trendsetters and other influencers seem to hold far more power (and followers) than people who truly know and have fact or science-based thoughts (probably in part, because the first ones are far easier and faster to read than the second…) A leader who doesn’t have an opinion is almost non-existent today.

So how to lead when we don’t know?

Create Trust, Transparency and Credibility: When they decided to go live on TV to announce the semi-confinement of Switzerland, the members of the Federal Council (equivalent to Ministers in other democracies), early in their speech, openly admitted that “Nothing has prepared us for anything of the magnitude of the Covid-19 crisis”, that they were certain of nothing, would progress by trial and error, change their minds but that they would always explain why and would do their best to ensure that the whole population would go through this together. That humble, transparent and credible attitude created a huge wave of support for the government, trying to navigate at best in a tricky storm.

Ignite the collective intelligence: James Surowiecki’s book, the Wisdom of Crowds explains how in complex cases, the average of replies is closer from the truth than the advice of the best experts. This made some people conclude to the superiority of the “Vox Populi” over scientists. They obviously have forgotten the five conditions for this phenomenon to happen:

  • Diversity of opinion: Each person should have private information even if it’s just an eccentric interpretation of the known facts.
  • Independence: People’s opinions aren’t determined by the opinions of those around them.
  • Decentralization: People are able to specialize and draw on local knowledge.
  • Aggregation: Some mechanism exists for turning private judgements into a collective decision.
  • Trust: Each person trusts the collective group to be fair.

And this is the exact opposite of what we see happen on social networks! It is not collective intelligence but sheepishly following influencers.

Support the emergence of competent people: One of the key duty of leaders, in sports as well as in business, is to protect the jewels of the teams. It is not the coach who plays, but the players. The coach sets the conditions for her people to do and be their best. As leaders, we find ourselves in the position of the human brain only able to consciously process 50-70 bits of data/second when it is in fact hit by 11 billion bits/second. The problem being that we should be able to consciously process far more in times of disruption… Since we can’t expand our brain and wisdom as rapidly as it should, the best solution is to connect the brainpower of our people by supporting those who surround display Trust, Generosity and Intelligence.

Disruptive leaders know how to elicit contribution of others rather than impose their individual opinion, which is the best option when the leaders “don’t know”. Rather than pretend, reject science, claim what will soon be exposed as a falsehood, they create Psychological Safety, they encourage people to think and come-up with ideas, they encourage, support and challenge! It is OK not to know, it is not OK not to lead!

I can’t help myself remember George Bernard Shaw’s warning: “Beware of false knowledge: It is more dangerous than ignorance!


  1. Gerson Oliveira

    this epidemic has brought us good (and bad) examples of leadership in times of disruption; we have a lot to learn and capture for organizations!
    Thanks Didier!

    • Didier Marlier

      Thank you, Gerson! Indeed, I see companies now analysing what they learned from Covid, both as an accelerator and a revelator. You’re spot on!

  2. Emmanuel Rispal

    …May I add that it is also “NOT OK not to know that we do not know… “(Sounds like a Swiss saying!)
    Then, how leaders can get the needed knowledge they know they do not have? Not sure they can easily source it from the wisdom of crowds, given especially the 5 conditions reminded by Didier and the global “cult of ignorance” that Asimov was lamenting (even if it was in the US and in the eighties) and that social networks era promotes by valuing opinions more the facts (let’s imagine if Plato came back nowadays…).
    So, to tackle the so called “wicked problems” of those disruptive times, the leaders have to create the (technical, social, psychological…) conditions of the emergence of the (most?) “competent people” within their followers…Most of them may not have the “row of electric push-buttons on [their] desk” that Henri Ford was boasting of, arguing that “by pushing the right button, [I] can summon to my aid men who can answer ANY question I desire to ask concerning the business to which I am devoting most of my efforts”. But most of them have those “aid men” that the “cult of experts” tends unfortunately to categorise, rank and segregate according to their more and more specialised knowledge….In sports like rugby, this skills specialisation process is clearly visible through the shape, size and weight of the top players according to their position in the team (let’s say to their role in the “business”)….but let’s remember that the really greatest goal of the 2108 soccer World Cup was scored by a (french!) defender, Benjamin Pavard (! So, the jewel is the one who knows or the one who dares because he knows how to use and organize his knowledge even out of his “box”?
    I have been personally amazed by one of our engineers during the toughest time of the pandemic (at the time we were all self-prisoners in our sweet home-jails) : his job in our organisation is to simulate the products tests by computer techniques, his days at work are made of algorithms and virtuality, and he has been the one to say « hey, we should have rapid prototyping machines that are no more used, let’s manufacture pieces that medical services are missing! ». His mind jumped directly from his engineering office to the manufacturing shopfloor and then he remained one of our key team players during the time we produced an delivered dozens of helpful small devices to the local community.
    Not sure we are all prepared in such a way by our educational system (where we are constantly sorted and ranked)…. but:”it is also OK to know what we know and how to use it and NOT OK not to learn !”
    Thanks Didier for his always inspiring articles!

    • Didier Marlier

      Thank you, dear Emmanuel, for taking the time to write an almost full article in reply to mine. Wonderful generosity.

      What you mention and exemplify is the reason why we recommend leaders to let emerge and shape “intelligent organizations”. You’re spot on! Fully agree.

      Have a good Sunday


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