Lindsay LaNore: The power of “I don’t know”

By Lindsay LaNore, ICBA

In the fast-moving world of social messaging, the phrase “I don’t know” has its own abbreviation. The very existence of “IDK” suggests that the state of not knowing—and being willing to admit it—is an essential part of being human.

Having said that, “I don’t know” isn’t something we, as leaders, necessarily want to say out loud. That’s especially true when we’ve reached a certain milestone in our careers or are managing self-imposed expectations. But if you think not having answers makes you vulnerable and open to criticism, think again. It may be part of the secret sauce that can make you an even greater leader.

How can you overcome a reluctance to say you don’t know something?


Start by changing how you look at learning

Remind yourself that you can’t know everything about the business, even if you are deemed an expert in your field. A gut check every now and then is critical to keeping your learning gauge at the right level. In short, great leaders must stay curious and embrace learning.


Face your insecurities and set your pride aside

If the past year has taught us anything, it is that nothing is guaranteed, and life’s unpredictable twists and turns require us to pivot, adapt and traverse new situations. COVID-19 forced community bankers to learn new things overnight, such as how to navigate working remotely, how to serve a customer population by appointment or through the drive-through, and how to adopt new technologies to communicate and deliver services.


Acknowledge that you have room to grow

It can actually make you feel more alive. Ask questions and stay inquisitive. The simple act of saying “I don’t know” can lead to new discoveries and new thinking. And that, in turn, leads to growth. It also means you are setting a good example for your team. Use the phrase as an opportunity to model curiosity and learning. Be a champion of learning for your community bank. If a leader champions learning, it can drive engagement across the whole organization. This leads to higher productivity, plus a stronger sense of happiness among employees.

The benefits of embracing “I don’t know” are plentiful. It prevents us from making mistakes and going down the wrong path. The phrase invites feedback from colleagues and promotes collaboration. Plus, it gives us permission to shift direction rapidly, if needed, and that can be very exciting.

The unintended—and unfortunate—result of never admitting to our knowledge gaps can be that we stop being curious, stop upgrading our skill sets and stop learning new things. And that is never a good thing.

Remember: Every time you say “I don’t know,” it’s another chance to learn.

Lindsay LaNore ( is ICBA’s group executive vice president and chief learning and experience officer