How Much Should Leaders Know?

By Dr. Francis Eberle

Clients have asked me how much they really need to know about leadership. This is not a simple question, and usually I share one of my favorite quotes by Henri Poincaré, a late 19th century French mathematician: “Science is built up of facts, as a house is built of stones; but an accumulation of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house.”

The point is, what we do with our knowledge is just as important, if not more important, than the knowledge we possess. Being an effective leader requires knowing many things, such as the company’s ideas, strategies, practices, plans, culture and people, but that isn’t everything leaders need to know.

In my experience, leaders should be continuous learners as described by Ron Price and Randy Lisk in their book The Complete Leader. Learning is a process, not an event, or even perhaps another degree. In this Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) world, a leader must keep learning. A better question might be: What type of knowledge do I need to be an effective leader in my company? Let’s look at some examples.

Naïve Perspectives
Reid Hoffman, a co-founder of LinkedIn, recently interviewed Barry Diller, chairman of IAC, for the Master of Scale podcast. IAC is an American holding company that owns over 150 brands across 100 countries, mostly in media and Internet. Reid called Barry an “infinite learner.” Throughout Barry’s successful career he has completely changed industries multiple times. Barry values a blank slate, so he can learn, ask naïve questions and learn some more. He seems to have the ability to think abstractly, intuit information, see patterns and solve problems by putting together ideas. This ability is imagined or created through one’s own experiences and understanding. In fact, psychologists Raymond Cattell and John Horn coined a term for this in the 1970s, calling it fluid intelligence.

Here are four of Hoffman’s 20 lessons to live by for being naïve and an infinite learner in business:

  • You are best when you know nothing. Revel in your ignorance.
  • Learn everything you can about what interests you and use it to question everything.
  • Don’t copy anyone else’s success. Break down what worked and take a hard turn in a new direction.
  • To succeed twice, learn how to unlearn. Let go of what first made you successful.

Expert Knowledge
Experts learn easily because of the way they organize what they know. In the National Research Council’s How People Learn report, the authors state that experts operate at a different level of processing than most people. They have organized their knowledge into a conceptual framework. By comparison, novice learners create lists and have to work much harder to decide what is important. Novices haven’t found a systematic way to organize and integrate new information. A novice with a good memory can lead to overconfidence. A recent Harvard Business Review article by Carmen Sanchez and David Dunning reported that beginning learners can often become overconfident, even with just a small amount of new knowledge. Their advice for beginners: have some sobering time and experience in the field. For the younger employee who wants to advance quickly this can be problematic. Here are some suggestions to help new employees gain more experience:

  • Invite them to observe meetings where difficult issues are discussed
  • Provide opportunities for them to make decisions and track their results
  • Give specific feedback. For example: “The steps you took with the client helped us gain more clarity,” or “The language you used with the client was direct but not aggressive.” Giving specific feedback to novices helps them grow.

Learning Better Communication
Leaders make things happen through people and must be able to work harmoniously with their teams. The more you can learn about people, the more effective you will be. Even with the increasing use of artificial intelligence in business, being able to effectively communicate is and will continue to be highly valued.

Psychology has allowed for some helpful tools to help understand people better, such as assessments from companies like TTI Success Insights. They provide tips for improved communication, insights about behaviors and motivations, and suggestions for managing and motivating individuals. Just to start, asking a few questions before engaging in a discussion can improve dialog between people. Consider the following:

  • What approach and tone should I have when I talk with this person?
  • What do they want or need?
  • What will engage them to want to act?

To answer, What should a leader know? is not easily parsed into specific chunks. Increasing your knowledge is helpful, but how you learn, organize and apply that knowledge is even more important. Knowing people well enough to motivate them so they want to act is a learned skill. Using the same approach to solve a problem because it worked before is not a strategy, but an instinct.

Keep learning, organizing ideas and engaging others. Doing this will make you an infinite learner.