I was in a plant working on a project and one of the senior linesmen called me over to his station. When I go there he asked me if I knew the difference between an engineer and a manager. When asked him what his definition was, he told me what he had learned over the years.

“An engineer learns more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing. A manager learns less and less about more and more until he knows nothing about everything.”

We laughed and went our ways but later I thought about his definition. Meant as a joke, it had a kernel of truth. As with most jokes, there was a play on reality that hurt. Why do leaders often come across as a know-it-all? Is there something in the position of leadership that inhibits leaders from saying “I don’t know, what do you think?” Why are leaders compelled to think they must have all the facts and answers simply because of the position they hold? Why do leaders feel that is demeaning to learn something from someone who is not at their level?

What can keep a leader from being one of the dreaded know-it-alls?
Leaders need to practice the wisdom recorded in James 1:19: “Let every man(ager) be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.”
• First, have a spirit of learning. This means learning from anyone. Appreciate learning often occurs at the most unexpected times. (This is one of the reasons Peters’ and Waterman’s admonition to “manage by walking around” is so important).
• Second, know and admit where your personal line between knowledge and ignorance exists. This is where learning occurs. Pretending ignorance is knowledge undermines the leaders credibility and inhibits learning.
• Third, listen. After saying, “I don’t know, tell me”, listen with a closed mouth and open mind.
• Fourth, ask questions to clarify. Probe a little to find out what’s behind the person’s thinking. Often the true message is beneath the initial words. This is where true value and insights lie.
• Finally, be appreciative. Genuinely thank the person for sharing information. Even if you don’t agree with the person, he or she took the time and the risk to give you something.

Obviously there are times when one has to get down to business. Uncontrolled discussion cannot continuously occur. Leaders need to let people know when that time has come. But when a leader is approachable on a day-to-day basis it usually means that people know there is an attitude of listening and learning that demonstrates respect for a person’s input and which begins to build trust over time.

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