Could Embracing Ignorance Improve Your Leadership?

Ignorant Maestro

Orchestral conductor Itay Talgam writes in The Ignorant Maestro, that “the greatest leaders not only embrace ignorance but are convinced it is an essential choice on their part, allowing their people to reach upper floors that haven’t even been built yet.”

In short, your willingness to let go of knowing—the conscious decision to be ignorant, to not know the answers, not even try to predict them—and embrace the unknown will be the crucial tipping point in making you the best leader you can be.

The ignorance that Talgam speaks of is not about having a lake of knowledge, but being open to exploring other knowledge. It is humility. It is built on our knowledge but it is the willingness to go beyond what we know—to explore the unknown—so that the future is a matter of choice rather than the result of inertial thinking.

Ignorance combined with two other qualities, the willingness to explore the gaps and listening, can create the space for others to fully express themselves.

Gaps arise from incompatibilities; when something doesn’t make sense; the difference between what we say and do. They invite exploration and creative work. “Gaps with the most potential are often the most intimidating ones, so they are probably covered with layers of tradition, routine, and ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it here’ attitude.”

“When we avoid gaps,” say Talgam, “we give up the possibility of choosing an interpretation for them, of putting them into context, of giving them a story. Our openness to new meanings is what allows the freedom to choose a different future. This invites the constructive participation of all stakeholders and that requires a high degree of listening.

Great leaders listen from the perspective of ignorance. Instead of focusing on transmitting knowledge, focus on creating dialogue. Create the space for dialogue and learning by listening. “As a leader your choice for ignorance makes you focus on the learning processes of your people, supporting them in their autonomous discoveries.” Listening focuses on holding the space open for that exchange rather than on the outcome.

“Gaps are the renewable fuel of new thinking, enabling change. Gaps exploration, around your organization’s leading values and ideas, is a great sustainable energy source.” You explore gaps by “choosing to be ignorant, and by listening from the unique perspective of ignorance.”

Talgam looks at the leadership styles of six great conductors in terms of how each of them did or do embrace ignorance, explored gaps and listened. In terms of leaders creating a connection with those they lead, the example of Leonard Bernstein is instructive. For Bernstein it was not a nicety but a necessity.

For a precious half hour or so he was not rehearsing at all but moving around among people, greeting each and every player by name, his arm around a shoulder, hugging some and kissing others. Engaged in a hundred conversations, he was catching up with domestic news, remembering names of children and events he had been told about maybe a year earlier. These were not just niceties but the manifestation of relations based on empathy and mutual trust. These precious thirty minute were the basis for making music together.

Source: Leadership Now

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