I don’t know …

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I read today a transcript of an interview between Pope Francis and journalists as the Pope returned to the Vatican from his recent trip to South America. I noted with great interest his response to a question. The context of the question is not particularly relevant to my point but in short, the journalist was asking the Pope to respond to criticism of his statements about capitalism (among other economic issues). I found the Pope’s response to be a great reminder for leaders (hence my post in this forum). Here’s what the Pope said in response to the question (I’ve bolded the sentences I found very relevant for leaders):

Pope Francis:  “What I said, that phrase, it’s not new. I said in Evangelii Gaudium. This economy kills. I remember that phrase well. It had a context. And I said it in Laudato Si’. It’s not a new thing, this is known. I cannot say … I heard that there were some criticisms from the United States. I heard about it, but I haven’t read about it, I haven’t had the time to study this well, because every criticism must be received, studied, and then dialogue must be ensue. You ask me what I think. If I have not had a dialogue with those who criticize, I don’t have the right to state an opinion, isolated from dialogue, no? This is what comes to mind.”

The reminder I took from this is that as leaders we don’t always have to know the answers on the spot. I think leaders often feel compelled to answer every question at a moment’s notice – whether we simply want to be responsive or whether we feel “weakened” or vulnerable by not having an answer at our fingertips. I’ve certainly had those moments where, in my haste, I answered a question or made a statement I later had to clarify or regretted. The lesson for me is that it’s alright to admit I don’t know something (or that I’ve not even taken the time to form an opinion) but I’ll look into the particular issue further and follow up (of course, we have to actually follow up!).

I also sensed a great deal of humility in the Pope’s response. Whether you’re Christian or not, whether you agree with his world view or not, most would agree he’s a pretty educated person – he could easily have rattled off his views on the issue and moved on. Rather, he admitted he wasn’t familiar with the particular criticism and needed some time to think about and formulate a response. (I suspect the Pope is likely more aware than he admitted … but that’s not my point in this post). From my perspective, it was very humble and also showed respect to his critics – and in my studies and experiences in leadership I’ve found humility and respect are great traits for leaders (and anyone else for that matter).

So, leaders … take it from the Pope: It’s ok to say “I don’t know … but I’ll get back to you.”

What do you think?

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4 thoughts on “I don’t know …

  1. Bill Johnson

    I completely agree. I am sometimes quick to state my opinion on things without fully investigating all perspectives of the question. I once posted a comment about atheists which I came to find out was unfounded and in fact arrogant. Regarding atheists I said, “Believing in God means people must be held accountable for what they do in their lives to a power greater than themselves, and they don’t want to deal with that. They don’t like having an absolute moral law to follow, because then they can’t do the things they want to do that are against the law.” I was immediately attacked by an atheist for that statement. In my follow-on conversations with him, I realized that my statement was completely wrong. I made the statement based on my own beliefs without investigating or researching what atheists really do think. I came to find out that many atheists do not believe in God because they have a mind set that demands very strong evidence to believe in something, and their threshold for what they consider to be strong evidence is very high. To the atheist, the evidence for the existence of God is not sufficient, whereas from my perspective the evidence is overwhelming. The particular person that I spoke with told me that he is not capable of having “belief” or “faith” in things – he makes judgements of what he considers to be likely or unlikely based on scientific evidence, seeing nothing as absolute. So in summary, I learned that I should not make statements about the opinions of others until I have thoroughly investigated and considered those opinions and what they are based on. I apologized for my arrogance, and thanked him for teaching me a valuable lesson.

  2. Donna Pearring

    I whole heartedly agree, Rob! In today’s world where information comes at us at the speed of light and technology changes almost constantly, it’s difficult, at best, to absorb it all. As hard as we try to read and research and stay current, we can never have all the answers. However, we can do the proper homework to get the information we need. Better to admit we need to get more information before we can provide an educated answer than to provide an answer that is incorrect or ill informed. Stating that we do not have enough information to provide a thorough answer to a question shows integrity and humility. Doing the due diligence to find the information and following up in the promised time frame shows commitment and reliability, which build trust and respect – all qualities needed in today’s leaders!


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