Aug 29

How Does Knowledge Limit the Effectiveness of Leaders


Through my work with people from all walks of life, I find that most peoples’ knowledge unintentionally limits their effectiveness. Like limiting beliefs, knowledge unnecessarily constrains the results people achieve. While this is true in most disciplines, I will focus this article on how knowledge unintentionally limits the effectiveness of leaders. I will focus upon three common ways knowlege is limiting and will share stories as illustrations.

How does your knowledge unintentionally limit your effectiveness? What is the difference between you having knowledge and your knowledge having you? What is the relationship between leadership knowledge and leadership skill? 

According to Wikepedia “Leadership can be defined as one’s ability to get others to willingly follow.” Utilizing this definition of leadership, leadership is about influence, not power. Anyone can be a leader by influencing people around them to follow their lead. Leadership, influencing people, is a learned skill. It involves acquiring and applying knowledge selectively when useful to pull people in a common direction. 

Elevating leadership skills involves more than acquiring knowledge. It includes utilizing peoples’ response to a leader’s action as feedback about the effectiveness of that leader’s action in a continuous process improvement loop. Effective leadership includes owning that the actions of team members are always influenced by the leader’s preceding actions. If someone is not responding to a leader’s action in the way that leader intended, the leader can elect to change their action to achieve a different response whenever they deem doing so to be beneficial to their organization.  

Most people, including leaders, consider the knowledge they have acquired to provide them with accurate information. The more knowledge they acquire, the more comprehensive and complete their understanding is of the world, people, and their leadership role.  

One common mistake leaders make is confounding acquiring knowledge with elevating skill. Leaders are typically inundated with knowledge about leadership. They have learned from multiple sources including past experience. They have acquired knowledge about management techniques. They have not necessarily applied that useful knowledge in a continuous improvement process as a means to further elevate their leadership skill.  

For example, most leaders have learned the sandwich method as a technique to give a team member constructive feedback. The sandwich method is a well-known technique taught to leaders through multiple venues. In essence, the sandwich technique is to first give positive feedback to someone before giving them constructive feedback. Then give additional positive feedback. The established theory is that people are more likely to accept and benefit from constructive feedback and less likely to become defensive through utilizing this technique. While leaders have learned this technique and typically utilize this technique and others with some success, they may not consider giving constructive feedback to be a learned leadership skill that can be further elevated through a continuous process improvement loop.

In our Leaders Ignite Program, I help leaders learn ideas they can utilize to elevate their skill giving positive and constructive feedback. They then receive a daily call to action that can be done in 2 to 5 minutes to use the ideas learned to give someone around them feedback. They utilize how people respond to their action as feedback.

One of my clients is a life coach. He called me on the telephone two weeks after he had participated in his training session on feedback. He was empowered and excited by a text message he had just received from his client whom he had given constructive feedback to the evening before. In her text message she wrote “….I feel like I will be able to look back at your constructive feedback as a major turning point in my life.” Most leaders never elevate their skill to consistently achieve comparable results because they have been led to believe learning a few good techniques including how to work with different personality profiles is sufficient. 

Another problem is that leaders reference their personal experience utilizing knowledge about a leadership idea to draw their own conclusion as to the value of that idea. They believe they have acquired sufficient knowledge to make this assessment. Thought leaders providing conflicting information about leadership confound this problem. Let’s examine the benefits of a leader effectively utilizing a corporate vision as an example.

Several years ago, I instigated and then sustained a community initiative to create a county welfare system that really works for everyone; one that empowers clients receiving public assistance to become financially self-sufficient. I acquired skill utilizing a vision through pursuing this vision for seven years. Community partners in this initiative included business leaders, social service leaders, government leaders, and community volunteers. The community volunteers included people receiving public assistance who were striving to become financially self-sufficient. One of these volunteers became a catalyst who united other volunteers receiving public assistance to pursue a related vision. They envisioned families applying for food stamp benefits receiving food for their families while they were waiting to receive their food stamp benefits. They would be treated with dignity and respect because they would be served by those who had previously walked in their shoes. These partners launched and sustained a food bank for five years. They staffed the food bank as volunteers. While they had received no training on vision, these volunteers demonstrated how their commitment to realize this vision yielded benefits including unleashing their passion, commitment, creativity, and performance. Fortunately, I had learned enough about vision as a leadership tool then to avoid killing their vision with my belief they did not know what they were doing. 

Any interested leader can learn how to utilize a vision to yield these same benefits for their organization. While this is a learned leadership skill, there are many successful leaders who have acquired knowledge about vision and never experienced these same benefits for their organization. For example, a former corporate leader in a Fortune 500 company once shared with me that they had never gotten much value out of their corporate vision statement. They had never experienced any of these benefits within their successful corporate experience.   

Another common mistake is applying knowledge to situations where other knowledge may be more useful. Jim Collins is a well-respected business professor, published author, and public speaker. He wrote a book titled Good to Great. In his book, Jim utilizes a bus metaphor to explain why so many companies who are striving to move their company from good to great fail to do so. He asserts with research to back up his assertion that the reason companies fail to move from good to great is because they have some of the wrong people on the bus and others in the wrong seat on the bus. Being on the bus is a metaphor for working for the company, and being in the right seat is a metaphor for being in the right position. I believe Jim’s book does not adequately focus upon the leadership skills that are essential to bringing the best out of the people on any given bus. Imagine for a moment how many people were thrown off of buses across the United States because leaders within their company had read Jim’s book. Of those thrown off of buses, how many could have been successful if their leader possessed elevated skills to unleash hidden potential in team members? 

I had a conversation with a leader who read Good to Great. He had also recently thrown someone off of the bus while he was reading Jim’s book. While Jim might agree that this termination was appropriate, there are costs to the company associated with hiring and training new workers. Leaders with elevated skills to unleash hidden potential in people can reduce these costs. There are also unintended consequences for people thrown off the bus that can be prevented. For example, other companies are hesitant to take a chance by hiring anyone who has been thrown off another bus, and those thrown off buses typically experience a loss of self-confidence from being terminated.

Because I happened to know the person who had been thrown off this bus, I reached out and offered to donate our Leaders Ignite Program. I believed I could help him learn how to unleash hidden potential in people around him. In the process of doing so, I knew he would unleash hidden potential within himself, including his potential as a leader. My services to him were part of my 8-hour monthly commitment to donate services to either not for profit organizations or people who are financially unable to purchase my services. Today he is thriving in a leadership position with far greater responsibilities than the one in which he failed to perform. His responsibilities include developing the potential of direct reports. He is also an emerging community leader. As a volunteer, he unleashes hidden potential within people who were previously stuck in a rut.

In conclusion, I have identified three ways in which knowledge limits leaders’ effectiveness. I have shared stories to help you understand how knowledge can unintentionally constrain results. I invite you to accept this call to action. Each day take action to utilize one helpful idea you have learned about leadership. Utilize how people respond to your action as feedback to further elevate your leadership skills. Accepting this call to action will help prevent your leadership knowledge from unintentionally limiting your effectiveness as a leader.