One of the most stimulating things about my work is the opportunity to work with incredibly smart people.  From academics with advanced degrees and brilliant research in their areas of study to rocket scientists, engineers, lawyers, doctors, bankers, military and government officials, journalists, and mental health professionals, I am in constant awe of the level of accomplished expertise people bring with them to their leadership roles.   My voracious appetite to learn and curiosity about people is fed with the stories, experiences, and amazing expertise I hear described and shared on a daily basis.

I have immense appreciation for expertise.  As someone who loves to learn and values depth of knowledge and experience, I find expertise to be a tremendous asset.  I have strived all my life to accumulate more and more knowledge and expertise, and still do.

It is important that I make that clear before I make the statement that is the subject of today’s post.

People often ask me what I think prevents or hinders someone’s continued growth as a leader.  One of the main things on my list is:

“Seeing yourself as an expert”.

What happens when we think we know a lot about anything?  We accumulate knowledge and a set of fixed theories or beliefs that shape our perspectives, and then view and filter information from that knowledge.  We then tend to quickly evaluate and even dismiss any data that comes in contrary to that knowledge or vantage point, or is something we think we already know.  When we listen, we are listening with a critical, judging filter that sorts the information against what we think we already know.

This actually prevents new learning.  It crushes our ability to see multiple perspectives or seek new information from unlikely sources.  It makes us impatient with people we deem as “not knowing” or less competent, and it makes us dismiss information that doesn’t come from someone we see as an expert like us.

A great illustration of this comes from a movie I just went to see last weekend about the life and work of Jane Goodall.  This National Geographic documentary highlighted Goodall’s life’s work in Africa living with apes and observing and recording their behaviors and habits, with the purpose of shedding light on human ancestry.  Dr. Lewis Leakey, a well-known anthropologist and archaeologist selected Jane for this project for a key reason.  She loved animals, but had no degree or training in the area.  He believed that she would observe and record what she actually saw, without the filter of preconceived notions and existing theories.  He felt that someone without expertise would actually be more objective and accurate.

This openness without judgment is often referred to as a “beginner’s mind”.  When you observe or approach something just as you would as a beginner, you are likely to be more open to the information coming at you.  Think about when you see or experience something for the first time.  Think of the curiosity and awe you have—as a child has discovering the new world around him.

Now think of how many times you have half-listened or not listened to someone because you have determined in a split second that you already know whatever the person is talking about.  Your knowledge and expertise is closing you off from listening and learning. Your critical judgment has prevented listening or asking questions to learn rather than to confirm your existing knowledge.

What would happen if you resolved to put aside your valued expertise and approach every person and interaction with a beginner’s mind?

What if you thought everyone and everything around you had something new to teach you?

What if you put away your prized critical judgment and just listened and watched?

Would this make you less of an expert?

Successful leadership requires openness, inquiry, suspended judgment, and true listening to others.  It demands that we seek to understand multiple perspectives, differences, and ways of doing things.  Perhaps once we have gained all the knowledge we have gained from our expertise, it is time to put it away and move towards real wisdom.

I am reminded of the words of Socrates:

“The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing.”