"Knowing what you don't know". I've had a strong distaste for that expression ever since I first heard it. Probably because whenever I did, it was most often from the mouths of ineffective leaders and often unethical superiors who would cite such wisdom upon my questioning their direction. It became a cliche synonymous with "because I said so". Years later, I came to appreciate these words after a leader, with the utmost integrity, used them in a helpful context as opposed to a derogatory one. She said "They don't even know what they don't know" to underscore the value in our service to many clients who, due to inexperience, were not only unaware of the hidden risks we would mitigate for them but of the potential harm those risks could cause as well. Years of practical application experience widens one’s field of vision and increases the ability to anticipate future outcomes. When someone’s vulnerability, due to a lack of experience is recognized…the more experienced individual may then choose to either exploit the ignorant party or protect them.
Aiming to protect someone, from something they don't know can harm them, often leads to even the best-intentioned managers merely reinforcing the need for their own presence. More productive managers develop their people by fostering independence. This is most efficiently accomplished by creating opportunities for experiential learning. The wisdom to know when protection from errors is more preferable than containment of damage, depends largely on one’s scope of vision in calculating the various potential related impacts.
Due to our first-hand experience with the enforcement of carefully worded contractual contingencies, this former mentor taught me that our moral and fiduciary obligation was to be diligent in breaking down every agreement word-by-word. She made me realize that, very often, legal contracts may appear to the untrained eye more as lengthy legal translations of standard simple terms rather than artfully crafted prose intended to bore, confuse and distract those who are not avid readers of legalese. She was dedicated to protecting those who were easy prey for exploitation. Those who enjoy such literature as they would fiction…or a film: With the tendency to suspend disbelief and surrender oneself to the overall plot. Continually moving along with the current and without ever getting hung up on the branches of an unknown word, inaudible line or some other “small detail”.
By adopting a Montessorial approach to management, it has become easier for me to realize the long-term value in allowing some foreseeable errors to occur and mitigate the damages they cause (provided such mis-steps provide experiential learning experiences whose value exceeds the risk of not being able to contain the potential damage created as a result). I now see the attempt to avoid every foreseeable mistake, as conventional wisdom might dictate, as short sighted. The ability to prevent even unexpected events from having catastrophic effects is empowering for any manager who appreciates the value of working with people who not only grow to anticipate outcomes…but change their own behavior as a result of learning from their own mistakes.
When I used to lead hiking trips through the Application Trail, I would position myself at the end of the line and the paramedic in front. Leading from behind enabled me to not only see if any one member of the team might be failing to keep up with the group, but also offered me the vantage point of seeing the entire team and anything that might cross their path.
As parents my wife and I are now learning, first hand, the value in replicating the same kind of leadership we regularly witness in the Montessori classroom. By maintaining even the smallest amount of distance from our daughter during most tasks, we strategically position ourselves to prevent harm as opposed to prevent failure. For example: taking one step back keeps us close enough to prevent her from picking up the sharp pieces of a broken drinking glass, but far enough away for her to learn what happens if she drops it.
This new sort of "leading from behind" has not only proved to bolster our daughter’s confidence in knowing that it's OK to fail, but more importantly in making her (and us) more and more aware of her own resilience.