My son asked me the most complex question ever. What came first? The chicken or the egg? Rather than trying to answer, I decided to let him explore possible solutions. So, I asked, "What do you think?" The chicken, he said. I persisted, "Where did the chicken come from?" The mother hen of course, he replied. "So the chicken came straight from the hen?" No. The hen laid an egg and it came from that, he said. I then asked, "Where did that egg come from?" From the hen, he said. "Where did that hen come from?" The egg. After a while it got so confusing that I almost forgot my original objective. Next question. Ok. Ok. "Who came first?" The answer came swiftly, "The chicken."
He was convinced by his answer and his conviction was more convincing than the answer itself. He taught me a powerful lesson. Sometimes, the answers may all look the same, or there may be no clarity and further probing may lead to even more confusion and vacillation. In such times, we need to have the conviction to make a choice, fully aware that we don't know enough about the problem. We have to make peace with the uncertainty. Not knowing does not necessarily stop action and in fact, could become a powerful approach to prompt action as we can learn from the example below.
"Not knowing 'how' is a tool only when we know what we want, why we want it and when we have the ability to enlist others into realising our ideas."
Not knowing liberates you into asking anything, said ace filmmaker in an interview to news channel IBNLive. Mani Ratnam has made some of the most successful movies in India, but he didn't have any formal training. He was an MBA graduate who got attracted to the film industry and jumped on to the bandwagon without following the traditional route. He shared in the interview, "The biggest advantage of being a film director is that you don't have to know everything. You don't have to know cinematography. You don't have to know music. But you should be able to ask for them. Not knowing liberates you into asking anything."
He described how once during a shoot, he asked a cinematographer why he couldn't film outdoors for a particular scene. The cinematographer, using certain technical terms, informed him that the exposure was too high. To this an ignorant Mani replied, "So?" This pushed the cinematographer to think beyond the accepted wisdom and forced him to find a way to shoot the scene to match the director's vision. In a way, Mani's "not knowing" effectively pushed the boundaries and produced a stunning outcome.
But there is a caveat. Not knowing "how" is a tool only when we know what we want, why we want it and when we have the ability to enlist others into realising our ideas. It is not the same as false optimism and unfounded enthusiasm. Ideas should be able to hold up to critical questions. It is important to be grounded. It is important to have a clear vision. It is important to be empathetic and not overpowering. In this state, our ignorance is bliss since we are making ourselves vulnerable. This vulnerability will generate trust to have an honest conversation that will clarify expectations and this will help others to participate in our vision.
Let me illustrate with a metaphor that I read in a book by Swami Sukhabodhananda: Positivity is like an incense stick lit in a room to overcome the stink caused by a dead rat. The stink will be just as strong once the incense stick wears away. Realism is taking the dead rat out and then lighting up an incense stick so that the good smell stays for a long time. If Mani Ratnam had just pushed his team without having a clear understanding of what he wanted, the dead rat would have come back to haunt him.
Leadership is all about belief and helping others to believe in your belief. It is about fully understanding the "what" and "why", while allowing the "how" to manifest itself through the power and ability of the team. Not knowing the "how" can liberate you from fundamental assumptions and as a result, push the boundaries to produce expanded outcomes.
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