Donald Rumsfeld famously talked about known knowns versus unknown knowns at a Department of Defense news briefing in February 2002, when responding to criticisms about the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. While it spread like wildfire on social media sites for it comedic content, it actually is based on a mainstream concept, called the Johari window. Developed by two American psychologists, Luft and Ingham in the 1950’s, it is very useful to help with leadership development.
The matrix defines four states: The first are things that are known by both parties – your common understanding (arena); the second are things known by you, but not by others – unshared information (facade); the third are things known by others but not by you – your blind-spot; and the last are things unknown by both parties.
My biggest insight in coaching people in leadership development, is that it is people who are acutely aware that there are known unknowns, who learn the fastest. Conversely, people who think they already know – people who focus too much on their known knowns – end up being defensive when challenged about seeing things differently, and therefore, do not learn or grow.
I have just finished a leadership program in the US, with a group of people who were already highly skilled in leadership. The audience included managers at director level and academic professors. Ironically it was this group that learnt the most and scored the program very high for learning new things, and gaining new insights. Other groups I have trained, who are not very experienced in leadership have commented afterwards that there was nothing new to learn, and that they didn’t really gain many insights for themselves.
This concept was actually studied by Kruger and Dunning in 1999. They discovered that the expertise to judge performance in a domain is actually the same as to produce the competence in the first place. In other words, people who are not very good at something, also lack the cognitive skill to assess how bad they are. When someone thinks they already have acquired a skill adequately, they are no longer motivated to continue learning.
I wish I could discover the antidote to this. My observation is that people who are already good at leadership seem to get better and better. They seek to attend training courses and respond well to coaching. Those who are not as good, avoid training where possible, and claim not to need coaching. It seems to me that, just having the insight that there are lots of things I don’t know, produces a continuous learning mindset, that is a major predictor of success in leadership!