Key points

  • Admitting what we don’t know is a strength that keeps us open to learning.
  • Managing ignorance is an essential tool for responsible leadership.
  • Moving beyond ignorance into new learning leads to greater effectiveness and innovation.
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Ignorance could be viewed as the highest mountain for humans to climb. That’s why it’s also perceived as debilitating, in the sense that it exposes our blindness.

We don’t know what we don’t know. If we don’t make any effort to inform or educate ourselves in a particular area, no amount of pretense can rescue us. While we generally admit that ignorance is a universal condition, not all ignorance is considered negative. There are three types of ignorance: ordinary ignorance, willful ignorance, and higher ignorance. By understanding the different types of ignorance, we can learn how to avoid or overcome ignorance.

Ordinary Ignorance

No one knows everything. Understanding this could help us come to terms with our shortcomings and take necessary measures to improve ourselves. For example, going to meet a colleague at a coffee shop at an unfamiliar place could require using a GPS system to locate it. This simple but effective way of planning our trip could keep us from getting lost in the process. Failing to seek information could cause us to lose our way and miss an appointment. Intentionally being informed starts with recognizing our limitations and doing something about it.

Another example: in the world of globalization, diversity is king. There’s no such thing as globalization without embracing diversity, whether of ways of thinking, of race, culture, religion, or a whole host of other demographics. A leader who finds himself or herself in an unfamiliar environment should endeavor to understand the differences and have an open mind to learn. This simple introspection stems from a fundamental need to know and could prevent us from making avoidable mistakes. Being alert to gaps in knowledge and moving to fill in missing information can help a leader be more effective.

Willful Ignorance

When we know better and choose not to do the right thing, dire consequences can follow. For example, if we come to understand the strength associated with diversity, equity, and inclusion, and yet choose to treat people of a different race, culture, gender, or social-economic class unfairly, we are essentially acting out of willful ignorance. As a leader of an organization, acting out of willful ignorance is can be harmful to the organization.

Exploring the benefits of applying diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace is an example of avoiding willful ignorance. A company that practices diversity, equity, and inclusion tends to flourish more than a homogeneous company. The effective practice of leadership requires avoiding willful ignorance so that everybody in the company is treated equally and fairly irrespective of job position and other qualifiers. On the other hand, disregarding existing knowledge or the responsibility to acquire new knowledge is a sure path to failure.

Another example: when a manager asks their employees to falsify data so that the manager and the group will look like top performers indicates willful ignorance, simply because the manager clearly acted willfully for a selfish reason. Unfortunately, such an act could set a negative precedent throughout the department. The right thing to do is to report the right data, which will set a good example for their employees that integrity cannot be compromised. Acting with integrity could open doors for other possibilities and opportunities for the company.

Higher Ignorance

No matter how much we think we know, we’ll never know everything. To be aware of, and even embrace, higher ignorance helps a person remain open to continually learning and growing while at the same time being aware that knowledge and understanding are limited. It takes humility to pursue higher ignorance. The ability to admit what we don’t know and trying to learn is the beginning of gaining new information. Research and development are based on an awareness of higher ignorance. Seeking to address higher ignorance is said to be like a person “looking for a black cat in a dark room.” An effort to find the cat in the dark room could lead to finding other objects in the room.

An effective leader who understands this principle could train their employees to be more curious and motivated to seek new information and ways of reaching goals. Leaders who are aware of the possibility of higher ignorance can refrain from asking employees to do things “the way it has always been done” and encourage them to be creative thinkers for the sake of organizational and individual growth and innovation.

Ignorance is a natural, universal phenomenon, and can be paralyzing if not addressed. The practice of leadership is enhanced when authority figures learn how to embrace higher ignorance in the way they interact with other team members. Leaders who are open about the risks of ignorance can increase curiosity and encourage interpersonal relationships. Admitting shortcomings and mobilizing others to engage in finding a corporate solution to a particular challenge can indicate an awareness of higher ignorance. And avoiding repeating the same mistakes is a way of not giving in to willful ignorance. Although ignorance can have bad results, as long as we exercise humility in the face of ignorance and take responsibility for it, we can provide the necessary leadership without having to know everything.


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