There are any number of things about being a leader or entrepreneur that are hard. Starting a business is hard. Hiring the right people is hard. Persuading people to pay you for the product or service you offer is hard.
None of those things, however, is nearly as hard as admitting you don't know something. That's just baked into the recipe for humans.
And yet there are three words that, if you use them regularly, will make you a better leader and---for that matter--a better person.
"I don't know."
Look, I realize that very few people ever want to say those three words. In many cases, it feels like admitting failure. That, it turns out, is exactly why it's so powerful when we do. No one does that.
In many ways, if you're responsible for leading anything, you're responsible for providing information and making decisions that affect the work and lives of the people around you. That means there's a level of pressure to get it right, and there should be. The stakes are high.
But that's not the same as having to know it all. Often, it's hard to know if you have the best information. It's hard to know if you're making the right decision. In many cases, no matter how accomplished or experienced you are, there's still plenty you don't know.
I don't say that as a criticism, but rather as permission to say it out loud. It's true for all of us, even though most of us would rather dig a tunnel with our mouth than admit that we don't know something.
But often we don't. And, once we recognize that, we can do something about it.
Sometimes, admitting it means you'll find someone who does and hire them to do it better than you could have anyway. Or maybe it means giving someone inside your company the opportunity to teach you something and grow in their own leadership.
Sometimes it means accepting that there's an important piece of information you need in order to make the best decision, and having the humility and self-awareness to acknowledge it and start to learn.
Sometimes it means sitting across from a customer who has a question that just might be the difference between her making a purchase from you and her finding someone else to meet her needs. In that moment, the last thing you want to say is "I don't know."
A funny thing happens, however, when you do. You have the chance to demonstrate that serving your customer is more important than appearing to know everything. You show that you're confident enough to admit that you don't know, hopefully with an assurance that you'll find out and follow up.
That takes an incredible level of emotional intelligence. It takes self-awareness, confidence, and self-control--three things that make all the difference between ordinary and extraordinary leaders.