A New Leaders Guide to Thriving: Lesson 2 — You Know Less Than You Think

And it’s okay not to know


Leon Purton

3 years ago | 6 min read

There is a fantastic rush that comes with being recognised as a great contributor at work. A warm internal glow that comes with the acknowledgement that you’ve done something valuable.

I remember the feeling of earning my first promotion. Within my work, I had some time-based advancements, but a few of them were competitive promotions.

Within the Military, each job category gets ranked each year, and a small number of employees in that category with sustained high performance (over the last few years) are identified for promotion. I was fortunate to be on this list. It is reflective that several bosses in several different jobs recognised my potential for the next rank.

However, even though they realised my potential, there were several things that I still needed to learn. A few months ago, I wrote an article on The First Three Things You Need to Do When You Get Promoted. The first of them was on how essential it is to write a to-stop list as a new leader.

This article is the second in a three-part series that expands on the original article and deconstructs each of the first three things you need to do when you get promoted to leadership.

Photo by Marija Zaric on Unsplash

First Part — Admit you don’t know

Pride and ego are a funny thing.

Being elevated into leadership can offer traps for the newly promoted. A surge in relative importance can stir feelings of ‘wow what an honour’, or, ‘it’s about time they respected my knowledge’.

The best leaders are those with humble competence. The know that pride and ego only slow down or restrict the team and themselves. They are competent in that whatever is asked of them; they do it with timely diligence. Their competence allows them to prioritise and communicate clearly. But it is the blending with humility that makes them so powerful.

The humble, competent leader is one who can readily say ‘I don’t know, but let’s find out’. If you want to be a humbly competent leader, you need to grow comfortable leaning towards ‘I don’t know’ and away from ‘I think I know, so I’ll tell them I do’.

You need to be genuinely curious about your staff and what they do. There is only one way to do this well. It is to realise that knowing everything, or even anything really, does not benefit you here.

The ‘I think I know’ trap is the most dangerous of all the new leader traps. Because it taps into pride and ego, the inner-monologue that accompanies that thought drifts towards feelings of inadequacy, ‘I’m the boss, I should know this stuff’.

But, you need to get comfortable saying ‘I don’t know’. Here are some ways to say it without saying it;

  • When it’s not your area of expertise — “I’m not sure I’m best placed to answer that”.
  • When someone asks a question you’re not prepared for in a meeting — “Here’s what I can tell you”.
  • When you should know and don’t — “That’s exactly what I’m seeking to answer”.
  • When it’s on the edge of your knowledge — “I understand some of it, what do you think is most important?”.
  • When you’re not aware of the background to the question — “I think I’m missing something, can you give me some of the detail?”.

But, the most important way of saying it is — “I don’t know, how can we find out?”.

If you use this one, you do not hide behind anything. You’ll get the information quicker, you’ll build stronger relationships, and you’ll be more authentic.

Each of those things should be motivation enough to park pride and ego and embrace humble leadership.

photo by Mark Fletcher-Brown on Unsplash

Second Part — Find your teams purpose

You need to be genuinely curious about your staff and what they do. There is only one way to do this well. It is to realise that knowing everything, or even anything really, does not benefit you here.

The only type of boss that this start point benefits, is the insecure boss, the person who feels the need to justify their position as the boss. They seek to value add to every conversation, interject with their perspective and to pivot or change strategies. They look to justify their position continuously.

You will have to learn the business, the success criteria for the team, but you need to forget what you think you know and learn what you do need to know.

The best way to find this out is to listen more and talk less.

You should ask your boss, or their boss if you can, ‘who are the best people in the organisation to talk to and understand what would make my team successful?’. Once you have their details, those of your team and boss, you can use the stop, start and continue question structure to find your team’s purpose. Ask all those people on your list:

  • “What do you see that we should stop doing because it doesn’t add much value?”.
  • “What do you see that we need to start doing because it will improve what we do?”.
  • “What is it that we are currently doing that is important we continue to do?”.

The answers to these three questions from your team, from your boss, from the other parts of the company, will give you the information you need to find your team’s purpose.

Pretending you already know it will only hold you back. Forget what you think, and set about finding out.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Third Part — you do what needs to be done

If you have completed the first and second part, you have a framework for establishing trust in your team and discovering their purpose.

Now — you need to work out what you need to do.

This is the hardest part because what you need to do now, is not what you had to do to get promoted in the first place. The stop, start and continue questions focus on the impact of your team. You have all the information you need to help focus their activities, but how do you provide a focus for your actions?

The same list of answers from your team, your boss and the people you have spoken to in your organisation provide what you need to do, but you need to filter them slightly.

You must remember to ask why they believe you should stop, start or continue something. Once you have done this you can set yourself two priorities, two areas of focus;

  1. Of what needs to be done, what is it you are uniquely qualified and best placed to do? And,
  2. What is it you need to focus on to support your team in doing the rest?

Understand these two things, execute them, and you will go a long way in being the leader you need to be.

The first answer is the hardest; it requires an understanding of the team’s capabilities and capacities and balancing the need to let them find the right way to get it done with just doing it yourself.

The uniquely qualified part gives you a list of the things that need to be done; the best-placed part gives you a filter for seeing what the team should be doing. Don’t put yourself in the middle of your team’s activities. If you’re not best placed, then get out of their way.

You need to focus on supporting your team in doing the rest. That is your job.


As a new leader, you’ve successfully worked out what it is you need to stop doing. Now you have a three-part framework for working out what it is you need to know.

The best place to start is realising you know less than you think and being comfortable saying so. ‘I don’t know, but let’s find out’ is your most powerful tool.

Then you need to focus your team on what’s important, using the stop, start and continue question will identify the things that the team (including you) needs to do.

You need to identify what it is you are uniquely qualified and best placed to do, and all of the things that need doing to support your team in doing the rest.

Follow this framework, and you’ll realise all the things you thought you needed to know were wrong, and you’ll now have a clear picture of what it is you do need to know. It’s less than you think. The boss doesn’t need to know everything.

The next part of this leadership series will focus on praise, the tool you have to lift your team, but it only works if you do it right.


Created by

Leon Purton

Inspired by life. Leadership, Growth, Personal Development. Engineer and Sports Enthusiast. Top Writer in Leadership.







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