Published May 23, 2023
The Oracle at Delphi declared Socrates to be the wisest man on earth. Socrates protested this honor because he knew that there was so much he didn’t know! Upon reflection, however, Socrates realized that perhaps the Oracle was right and perhaps he was wiser than anyone else: After all, while others thought that they knew more than they actually did, Socrates knew the limits of his knowledge.
This concept, that wisdom consists in humility, is reflected in Job 38, where God questions Job about the limits of his knowledge. Job’s response is to cover his mouth and to stop talking. The point is that wisdom consists in knowing there’s a lot you don’t know. Consider the life-changing words of Deuteronomy 29:29: The hidden things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”
Leaders always make decisions with limited information, knowledge, perspective, and foresight. No matter how good your team or how thorough your planning and research, leaders are not omniscient. Wisdom never consists in acting like you know more than you do, but in an awareness that despite our best planning, there is always some level of doubt in leadership. Doubt should never keep a leader from making decisions which must be made, but it does influence how a leader makes decisions.
Acting like you don’t have doubts is simply not true, and the people you lead will know you are lying and wonder what else you might be lying about. On the other hand, acknowledging doubt in appropriate times and in appropriate ways humanizes a leader, which in turn, endears the leader to whose being led.
Based on a 2015 report published by the Saïd Business School at The University of Oxford titled Embracing the Paradoxes of Leadership and the Power of Doubt, decisions are made on a quadrant with two continuums; a vertical continuum of confidence and doubt and a horizontal continuum of ignorance and knowledge. Depending on where you fall on this quadrant, you will need to take unique steps as a leader to manage doubt and make wise decisions.
Leaders who have a high degree of confidence and a low level of knowledge have hubris and can be catalytic and bold leaders, but such leaders need to surround themselves with knowledgeable people and know that others know more than they. Leaders who lack both knowledge and confidence tend to be paralyzed by analysis and need to surround themselves with people who can educate them toward a confident decision. Leaders who have a high level of knowledge and a high level of confidence are prone to myopia and need to surround themselves with people to challenge their tendencies toward bias. Lastly, leaders who have knowledge but lack confidence need to surround themselves with people who will confirm their planning, thinking, and findings.
Leadership tendencies are context-specific and anecdotal. Nevertheless, ask yourself these questions: Am I aware of my tendencies in regard to doubt? Am I prone to hubris, paralysis, myopia, or insecurity? Have I surrounded myself with individuals who are equipped and empowered to complement my tendencies?
Confident and competent leadership does not require the absence of doubt, but it does require a wise strategy for dealing with doubt that includes self-reflection and a biblical understanding of wisdom.