Want to be a future leader? Time to embrace an ‘I don’t know’ mindset…

In a world that celebrates certainty and unwavering confidence, a leader admitting, ‘I don’t know’ might seem counterintuitive. Traditionally, good leaders are perceived as all-knowing, decision-making virtuosos who possess the solutions to every challenge. And often when coming into a leadership position one might make the mistake of thinking that you’re supposed to know everything.  

In her keynote talk at the everywoman Tech Forum Dr Radia Perlman – Inventor of the Spanning Tree Protocol (STP) and Dell Technologies Fellow, Dell, discussed this perception of leadership and cited that ‘if you want to be a really true role model, you should show that you’re very open about not knowing everything and you should be the first person to ask naïve questions about things.’ 

In this article, we will delve into the growing consciousness about the advantages of adopting an ‘I don’t know’ mindset. We will explore how this humble approach can empower leaders to navigate complexity with grace, promote open communication within teams, and inspire a culture of continuous learning. By unearthing the hidden potential in embracing uncertainty, future leaders can unlock a new dimension of leadership that propels organisations towards progress and success. 

What is an ‘I don’t know’ mindset?

An ‘I don’t know mindset’ encourages leaders to approach situations without ego, armed with openness and an appetite for learning. It entails a return to our younger, unguarded selves, where creativity and authenticity flow freely.  

By starting with curiosity and suspending judgment, leaders can tap into a more holistic way of thinking. This mindset does not dismiss rational thinking; rather, it recognises that embracing uncertainty and admitting ignorance can be a powerful catalyst for growth and innovation. Choosing naivety is about questioning what we think we know, acting on those answers, and fearlessly exploring uncharted territories in the pursuit of progress and inspired leadership. 

Why is a ‘I don’t know’ mindset essential for leadership and teams?

Having an ‘I don’t know mindset’ is a game-changer for leadership and teams in today’s challenging world. In the midst of post-pandemic uncertainties, remote work dynamics, and the integration of AI-enabled technologies, leaders are required to juggle a myriad of responsibilities while still nurturing their own growth and development.  

When leaders feel safe to be themselves, they create a culture where team members feel empowered to be their true selves. Choosing naivety in leadership fosters an atmosphere of trust, transparency, and acceptance, unlocking the full potential of both leaders and their teams.  

Embracing the courage to be naive as a leader means showing up authentically, even in times of chaos and change. It involves envisioning a brighter future, believing in the potential of people, and fostering an inclusive environment that welcomes diverse voices. By advocating for open communication and empowering employees, leaders set the stage for their teams to follow suit.  

What are the positive effects of leadership adopting an ‘I don’t know’ mindset on business?

Adopting this kind of mindset in leadership can have profound positive effects on businesses, driving innovation and fostering a culture of authenticity and values-driven decision-making. By embracing a sense of naivety, leaders break free from conventional thinking and explore new possibilities beyond the boundaries of the status quo. By daring to question established norms and challenge assumptions, leaders open the door to transformative ideas and unconventional approaches, spurring creative problem-solving and driving business growth. 

In his new book: Dare to Be Naive: How to Find Your True Self in a Noisy World, Joshua Berry cites the example of Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia as a shining example of the power of choosing naivety. Yvon’s love for nature led him to create a successful business, but when he discovered that some of his products were harming the environment, he faced a pivotal choice. Instead of conforming to conventional wisdom and pursuing profits at any cost, he chose to follow his heart and stick to his values. This audacious decision meant discontinuing his most profitable product line at the time, a move that many considered naive. However, the decision paid off, not only in terms of financial success but also in the profound impact it had on people. 

Do you think leaders having an ‘I don't know’ mindset is more important today than it would have been in the past?

In the rapidly evolving landscape of today’s world, leaders having an ‘I don’t know’ mindset is more crucial than ever before. In the past, leadership might have been associated with a more rigid and authoritative approach, where leaders were expected to have all the answers. However, the ever-increasing complexity and uncertainty of the present demand a shift in mindset. Today, being open about what we don’t know has become a strength rather than a weakness. It fosters a culture of continuous learning, encourages collaboration, and empowers teams to navigate ambiguity collectively.

Embracing a learning mindset becomes a cornerstone for success in an era where predicting the future is increasingly challenging. This shift in perspective is vital as it enables leaders and teams to adapt swiftly to unexpected challenges and seize opportunities for growth. Authenticity becomes paramount in a world where agility, resilience, and open-mindedness are the key differentiators for businesses and leaders alike. 

As we stand on the precipice of an ever-changing future, the ‘I don’t know’ mindset emerges as a powerful tool for leaders to navigate uncharted territories. By embracing this ethos, leaders become torchbearers for progress and inspire their teams to thrive in the face of uncertainty.

Admitting you don’t know something does not always come easily. What are some steps female leaders can take towards embracing the idea of naivety? What benefits will this reap?

The idea of being vulnerable, naive or admitting that you don’t know something can be more challenging for women, communities of color and/or marginalised communities in a professional setting. We may find ouselves fighting harder to establish credibility, and showing vulnerability may seem counter-intuitive to this. For such leaders, embracing naivety can break down barriers and shatter stereotypes, empowering them to show up authentically, combining strategic prowess with emotional intelligence. This holistic approach to leadership cultivates a more connected and innovative team that values diversity of thought and prioritises the well-being of ourselves and people around us.  

An ‘I don’t know’ mindset allows leaders to acknowledge that they do not have all the answers, which in turn fosters a culture of openness and continuous learning. By embracing vulnerability, leaders create an atmosphere where team members feel safe to voice their opinions and contribute their unique perspectives, leading to more innovative solutions and increased employee engagement. 


This piece was written with input from Allison Dahl and Joshua Berry. Joshua has a new book entitled, Dare to Be Naive: How to Find Your True Self in a Noisy World” which provides a closer look into how the willingness to admit you ‘don’t know’ can have a hidden upside. 

About Allison Dahl: As a consultant at Econic, Allison blends 15+ years of leadership, strategy, innovation, and talent development to help leaders build strategies to grow themselves and their organisations. Allison invites leaders to find their authentic voice, increase awareness of their unique strengths, and understand their blindspots. 

About Joshua Berry: Joshua is a world-class facilitator of change. As an author, speaker, entrepreneur, and director of Econic, Joshua has spent the last two decades evolving the what, who, and why of Fortune 500 companies and venture-backed startups. To learn more about Joshua’s new book, look here


Not a member yet?

Meet your goals and develop your skills on the everywomanNetwork. Join 1000s of other members today.


Not a member? If you would like to hear about our latest content, news and updates, sign up to our monthly update newsletter.