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Inspiring Others with Three Words: "I Don’t Know"

Social worker and researcher, Brené Brown spent years studying shame and vulnerability. Her academic work on vulnerability skyrocketed into popular culture when she introduced it into the board room. Years ago, vulnerability was seen as a weakness, something to hide from others. You do not have to hunt far for an example. Microsoft Word currently lists weakness as a synonym for vulnerability. Dr. Brown is credited with ushering vulnerability through an image overhaul and making it safe to apply this tool in the office. Aspiring leaders can add one simple statement to their lexicon to practice vulnerability at work: “I don’t know.”

An “old school” leader was defined by their ability to be decisive in tough situations, exude confidence and maintain a strong composure. Managers during this era may have even hid parts of themselves that did not fit this characterization. Vulnerability and management were like oil and water – they did not mix. “New school” leaders, on the other hand, lead by example and leave their ego at the door, allowing others to contribute and bring new ideas. They are emotionally intelligent, build trust and loyalty by being transparent with their team and admit when they are wrong. It doesn’t take a mathematician to determine that the gap between the old and new school paradigms is large. Showing up as a vulnerable leader may be a big change for some, especially for generations who grew up in an environment where directive leadership was embraced.

Change can start with allowing yourself the freedom to not always have the answer. Sounds simple, right? Truth be known, many leaders assume they need to always appear to be in control and have a limitless supply of knowledge on a myriad of subject matters. Though this expectation is found in all genders, the trait seems to shine brightest among female leaders. Forbes contributor, Joy Burnford, surmised, “Women, in particular, are so used to fighting their way to the top that they often forget that it is normal and human not to know every answer ….” Not knowing something takes bravery to share if you have been spending years of mental capital hiding your faults and working three times as hard to make up for it.

The benefits of this small admission roll out to your team as well. By removing your voice as the dominant tone in the room, you open the floor for others to speak up and offer ideas that may not be perfect. You are modeling behavior that creates a safe place for others to admit when they don’t know and gives them permission to ask for help. Your transparency with the team has a domino effect and builds momentum towards larger feats of vulnerability in the workplace. And a team full of vulnerability acrobats sounds like a group of people you would be proud to lead. So the next time you are thrown a question and your mind draws a blank, try this technique. Pause. Take a deep breath and say,”I don’t know” or ask your team for their view on possible solutions. Give yourself a little grace and look for the opportunity that results from not knowing everything.


Burnford, J. (March 26, 2019). Unmasking Vulnerability as a Female Leader. Forbes.

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