Dialogue Classic: Not Knowing – A new leadership paradigm

By Steven D’Souza and Diana Renner, authors of Not Knowing.

“We are called upon to do something new, to confront a no man’s land, to push into a forest where there are no well-worn paths and from which no one has returned to guide us To live into the future means to leap into the unknown, and this requires a degree of courage for which there is no immediate precedent and which few people realise.” Rollo May ‘The Courage to Create’

Although more than 20 years old, the above words written by American existential psychologist Rollo May are more relevant today than ever. We find ourselves increasingly confronted by complex challenges that we cannot even fully describe, let alone solve. The leadership terrain is constantly shifting. There are no well-worn paths we can tread and no guides to show us the way. In the dynamic complexity and interconnection of the world we live in, no easy answers are possible. Our confidence and competence are tested every day.

At the edge with the unknown we confront our own uncertainties, fears and anxieties. For many of us, facing the unknown is painful. We are neurologically hard-wired to know and are comfortable in the familiar. In this new space we may feel groundless, embarrassed, perhaps even ashamed or angry that we cannot crack the problem, keep up with the pace, or ‘go back to the way it was’.

When we reach our edge, common default responses are to:

  • work harder
  • attempt quick fix solutions
  • rely on the comfort of data, experts and Google.

Many of our responses are simply extensions of old ways of tackling issues. We stick with what we know, with incremental variations. Our business schools teach students case studies based on precedents; our consultancies see their clients’ problems as ‘unique’, whilst offering the same models. In a world of financial crises, continuous organizational restructures, societal revolutions, our experts and leaders have been found wanting.

If we can begin to accept that our old ways are no longer useful, then we can begin to open up and hear May’s ‘calling’ to find new ways of living and leading at the edge. We can start considering what it may mean for us to do something new, to push into an unexplored territory, to leap into the unknown with courage, even though it may seem uncomfortable and counterintuitive. It is only at the edge of our competence, by embracing Not Knowing, that we can start discovering and creating new ways of tackling our most vexing leadership challenges.

Trust and let go

Gina Badenoch embodies May’s ‘courage to create’. She is a young Mexican woman who eight years ago decided to teach photography to blind people. I thought it could be a bridge that connected two worlds. Through their photographs, they could make the invisible visibleAs a photographer she had always used her photographs to make seen the unseen, to express herself with no intermediaries, but when she announced to the world what she wanted to do, everyone thought she’d gone mad. Undeterred by the criticism and cynicism she encountered, Gina started ‘Ojos Que Sienten AC’ (‘Sight of Emotion’), with a group of 15 blind people. At that moment we all decided to leave behind what we knew, and together discover other ways of expressing and being included into society, remembers Gina.

Led by her strong purpose, Gina’s organisation has worked over the years with over 1,000 young people in Mexico, as well as running projects globally. She is driven by a desire to change mainstream perceptions of photography and to explore emotions and creativity through all the senses. Ultimately, for Gina the project is a way to eradicate mental blindness – the barriers that get in the way of taking that leap of faith into the unknown.

Marco Antonio Martinez is one of Gina’s many accomplished students. The blindness has forced him to approach life with an exploratory mindset, to become more aware, and to embrace learning by trial and error – all key skills for anyone operating in the unknown. The photo above illustrates the importance (literally!) of walking in other people’s shoes. When we are pushing into a forest where there are no well-worn paths, we need to be compassionate towards ourselves and others.

Gina’s invitation to leaders is at the heart of “Not Knowing”, and deceptively simple: Be present, observe what you do have, trust and let go.  When walking on the unknown, the worst thing you can do is to hold on to your ego wanting to control what you cannot control. The beauty of the unknown is that if you allow yourself to be vulnerable and keep focus on what you can do with what you do have, you can be open to learning new things and enjoying the journey. 

Not Knowing leadership manifesto:

  1. Say I don’t know’ more often.
  2. Dont search for the answers, live the questions.
  3.  Be a beginner at something.
  4. Let go of control, engage with ‘what is’.
  5. Learn by watching, listening and waiting.
  6. Tap into all your senses. Your body is a gateway to new learning.
  7. Entertain doubt, cultivate humility.
  8.  Challenge blind reliance on authority and expertise.
  9. Cultivate a mindset of exploration and experimentation.
  10. Embrace mistakes and failures. 

Above all, be prepared and enjoy the journey. After all, as poet Antonio Machado encourages us, “the path is made by walking”.

Are you ready for the adventure?


– Steven D’Souza and Diana Renner have more than 30 years’ experience between them consulting, coaching and facilitating globally, across diverse fields spanning leadership, HR, diversity and organizational development. They met at the Harvard University Kennedy School’s ‘The Art and Practice of Leadership Development’ Program. Their book, ‘Not Knowing‘ has just been shortlisted for the Chartered Management Institute “Management book of the year”. Click here to get a copy of the book.

For more information on Not Knowing visit www.notknowingbook.com and connect with us on Twitter @NotKnowingLab