“I don’t know.”
Some might argue that’s the last thing you want to hear from a leader. After all, you expect them to be the expert, the backbone, the person you go to for all the answers. I would argue that “I don’t know” is the most powerful phrase you could hear from a leader.
I know this might conflict with your vision of an ideal leader, but let me elaborate.
Pretending to know something creates an immediate air of uncertainty. It’s like how dogs can smell fear. Most people can sense when you don’t have any idea what you’re talking about, so the moment you start pretending, you’re no longer a leader—you’re an actor in an improv show. Which, as an improv guy, I’m more than happy to do on my off hours, but when I have a whole team of people relying on me, I’d rather stick to what I do know. And sometimes I don’t know … a lot. And I’m 100 percent fine admitting it.
World, I, Jason Geis, Group Creative Director, do NOT know the answer to every problem, know how to execute every tactic, know every channel flawlessly—and furthermore, I will ask a thousand questions in the quest to learn about it and eventually KNOW the answers.
Wow, that felt good. Try it. Right now. Move away from your standing desk and go tell someone you don’t know the answer to something. It’s liberating. What’s even better? If you follow it up with, “I’ll ask someone who knows.” That right there is teamwork.
Acknowledging that advertising is a team sport is the single greatest move I’ve made as an industry vet of 20 years. The second greatest move? Giving credit to the person who taught me. It’s an instant team unifier and creates an atmosphere of collaboration. Suddenly, we don’t have to all pretend we are subject matter experts in every subject. We can finally say, “I don’t know, but I bet Joan does.” Joan always knows, you guys. Just ask Joan.
When I first started in advertising, I had a leader who taught me this skill, but I was also surrounded by creatives who arrogantly stomped into meetings and simply could never admit to not having an answer--to not knowing. Though it was apparent to everyone in the room. I remember countless projects derailed so badly that even the client would raise their hands and ask, “Hey guys, what’s happening?” The silence in the room, most conspicuously from those who knew everything, was deafening. Reassuring clients about our dumb, uninformed decisions became the most infuriating part of my job.
Years ago, I witnessed a creative director tell an account team and the client with total confidence that an experiential event was the solution for the brief. When the account executive dared to ask how we would we execute it, the creative director said, “Leave that to the creative team.” (I think you see where this is going.) Not only had this CD never produced an experiential event—he didn’t even know where to start. There followed many, many sleepless nights researching similar events. And a lot of “winging it.”
What the CD “didn’t know” added hours and dollars to the job, but worst of all, it made us look foolish. All of that grief just so a creative director could feed his ego. Had he just said he didn’t know, we could have figured out if we knew someone who did or identified the need for a consultant, ultimately saving time and money. We also could have saved face.
What so many leaders in advertising don’t understand is the true leadership power of “I don’t know”—that admitting you don’t have the answers makes you more effective. More humble. More human. I walk through my ad career with a Riverside compendium of Shakespeare in my head, and am reminded so often of the court jester Touchstone in Shakespeare’s in As You Like It, who says: “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”
Maybe you hated Shakespeare. Understandable. Still, the connection between great leadership and admitting you don’t know something is both well-documented and painfully self-evident in this modern American life.
During a 2017 panel discussion, former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton riffed for a while on the critical importance that not knowing plays in the careers and development of great leaders. President Bush said, “I think it's really important to know what you don't know and listen to people who do know what you don't know.” And this is from the head of an administration that gave us the classic Abbott/Costello “known knowns” routine from another of its leaders. (To be fair, I think Rumsfeld was stressing the importance of admitting what he didn’t know. He just mansplained it to death.)
So maybe I’m painting a big target on my back, but still, I cordially invite you—all of you in the ad community—to say, “I don’t know,” freely and without fear. Try it next time you truly don’t know the answer and watch the reactions. Then tell me how it goes—because, while I’ve got a hunch, I can admit I don’t really know how it will go. And I’m fine with that.
Jason Geis is a group creative director at Blue Chip Marketing.