The Power of Not Knowing



In this episode, Bill speaks with Newell Eaton, a seasoned leadership coach and creative facilitator and frequent Emergent collaborator. As leaders, we can’t possibly know everything or have a solution to every problem. Consequently, there may be a temptation to pretend we have knowledge we actually don’t. But pretending can compromise trust. Listen as Newell discusses the importance of recognizing and admitting the things we don’t know, and learning to count on others for their expertise.



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*Note: The following text is the output of transcribing from an audio recording. Although the transcription is largely accurate, in some cases may be incomplete or inaccurate due to inaudible passages or transcription errors



Bill Berthel: Welcome to the Get Emergent podcast. This is where we discuss leadership team and organizational topics and better practices. We like to provide concepts and ideas that you can turn into pragmatic experiments to help you develop your higher potential in your work and your leadership. I’m Bill Berthel and today I have a very special guest with me. He’s a longtime friend for all of us at Emergent. He’s a fellow coach, a colleague, who has what I’ll describe as a beautiful mastery and perspective on human interactions.

Bill Berthel: Newell, welcome.

Newell Eaton: Thank you, Bill. It’s really a pleasure to finally get around to having, ah, one of these conversations with you.

Bill Berthel: Yeah, absolutely. Well, one that we’re going to get to record at least, right?

Newell Eaton: Exactly.

Bill Berthel: I always enjoy our conversations, and we were kind of joking just a moment ago that it’s a shame we only have, well, we have as much time as we want. We’ll only make about 20 minutes or so of this. We could talk all day.

Newell Eaton: We sure could.

Bill Berthel: So today’s topic is near and dear to both of us. It’s this idea of not knowing. The power of not knowing. Can you help me frame this concept of not just not knowing, but that there’s a power in not knowing?

Newell Eaton: Yeah, it’s interesting because so often we have this notion that as leaders, we’re supposed to be competent and know. Right.

Newell Eaton: We’re hired, we think, because we’re supposed to know, and we do know a lot, but there are many things we don’t know that sometimes we think we should know.

Bill Berthel: Absolutely.

Newell Eaton: And so from an integrity perspective, when we kind of pretend we know those things, we usually start to reduce. When people discover we fact don’t know, it really reduces trust. So as leaders, how do we recognize what we really do know? Right.

Newell Eaton: And recognize the power of that. A lot of other people know things that we don’t know. I think the core power of not knowing is recognizing how do we count on others who might know. And ah, when we think about what’s the essence of leadership? A, leader is someone who can’t get it all done by themselves. They need others to get something they care about done. They care about that they try and find other people who care about it to come together to do something. Well, those other people are the ones that by asking them what they know to do stuff, they feel like, oh, their competence is being recognized, they become appreciated. So there’s a tremendous power in team creation by a leader who does not know certain things.

Bill Berthel: Newell, I love how you just defined leadership in the way that it’s someone who can’t get it all done by themselves that really underscores what we’re talking about today. I think maybe I should speak about myself because I don’t know what other leaders are really thinking or doing. I’d like to pretend I know sometimes, and that goes right to the essence of what we’re talking about, but I think sometimes I feel that not only should I know, but I’m almost not serving the work or my people by not knowing. Right.

Bill Berthel: There’s this less than feeling, what have you seen that helps individuals, if not relieve that step into a different space than that pressure of having to know?

Newell Eaton: I think of the particular circumstance frequently when I’m coaching someone who has stepped up into a new leadership role.

Bill Berthel: Yeah.

Newell Eaton: And there’s anxiety about frequently because, oh, will they think I’m competent? And that is particularly true if they’re managing a group of people who are engaged in something that’s different than what they quote were experts at.

Bill Berthel: Right.

Newell Eaton: And they start being asked expert questions in that context. It’s a perfect opportunity that many in coaching, I really try and help people with this to say, I’m really good at this. I know this, and I really need all of you for these areas that I don’t know anything about. Maybe I’ll learn about through you, but really, you are the experts, and my job is to help you bring your expertise out. So, in other words, create the context so you don’t have to know.

Bill Berthel: So I love that. So that takes, I can imagine, some vulnerability in admitting to others what we don’t know.

Newell Eaton: Exactly.

Bill Berthel: Fossil anchor on what we do know. So it’s not a complete surrender. It’s not a complete, hey, I’m an ignorant person. It’s some mastery over here, but there’s plenty of other spaces that I could really use your expertise.

Newell Eaton: And the other thing with teams today, as we all know, there is so much change happening that’s unforeseeable.

Bill Berthel: Yes. And fast. Right.

Newell Eaton: And fast. So there’s a wonderful piece by Edwin Snowden called the Cynefin Model, which talks about what’s knowable and what’s unknowable.

Bill Berthel: I don’t know this model.

Newell Eaton: Yeah, it’s spelled C-Y-N-E-F-I-N I think Cynefin. And so without getting into a know training piece on it, it basically is saying there are things that are simple, that are knowable. Like a light switch. Well, flip it. You hope it’ll go out. It usually does. That’s called simple. Complicated is like, there’s probably one good way to write a computer program that will get you there most efficiently. Every time you do that, you’ll get the same results. But, like, the conversation we’re having right now, or any meeting is what he would call unknowable until it happens. It’s complex, and so you can project or estimate what might occur, but you really don’t know.

Bill Berthel: Right.

Newell Eaton: And that’s complexity. And the world we’re in today is filled with that kind of stuff. You can explain it after the fact, but you really don’t know what’s going to happen until it happens. You can try and move things in a direction, like when we facilitate groups. Right.

Newell Eaton: You kind of have an idea where it may end up, but you really don’t know till the group meets. And the fourth category, which is what is really creating havoc, is called chaos. And you can’t even figure out what happened after the fact.

Newell Eaton: It’s just like the world with so much. So the pressure the teams are feeling today is because there’s a lot of chaos out there. So as a leader, you can’t know what’s going to happen there. So how do you create the space where it’s okay to start experimenting and try small steps to navigate? And so to me, that is really accepting you don’t know and then beginning the process of what are little ways we can figure out the future or our best attempt and that fail fast stuff we sometimes talk about or to pilot things, that’s because we’re living more and more in a chaotic world. So as a leader, how do you have the resilience to accept you don’t know the future, you never really did. But now we really know we don’t. So how do you play into that space? And so to me, that’s the power of recognizing you don’t know and to begin to explore the power of small steps, if you will. Let’s try this. Let’s try this kind of stuff.

Bill Berthel: So the differentiation between complex and chaotic is the foreseeable potential future state. Chaotic is we even get to the future and look back and it’s difficult to really tell what has happened.

Newell Eaton: I sometimes think of complexity, like, if you have an organization that has meetings on a regular basis, every meeting is going to be different, but there’s a general flow that you can sense what’s likely to occur. You can do probabilities with some degree of success in complexity.

Bill Berthel: Right.

Newell Eaton: Writing a strategic plan?

Newell Eaton: Right.

Newell Eaton: yeah. It won’t come out like it never comes out like what you proposed, but there’s approximation, and you can navigate it, whereas today’s world is far more often chaotic. We think we know what will happen, but certainly the whole Covid time was a time of extreme chaos. No one could. I mean, there were people who kind of forecast it was going to happen someday, but to see what was going to happen out of it and how it’s affected organizations and the hybrid and all the rest of it, we get to deal with hybrid, like what we’re doing right now, in a way. I don’t think any of us had a handle on that in 2017 18.

Newell Eaton: Right.

Newell Eaton: So the power of not knowing was to appreciate there’s going to be an unknowable future, and how do you set yourself up to be resilient enough to be able to deal in that world as a team? So how do you use that?

Bill Berthel: Yes, let’s go there, because I think you’re right. I think leaders are working in more, perhaps chaotic environments or chaotic topics. the way we’re defining chaotic currently, it’s making me think of the acronym VUCA. volatility, uncertainty, complexity.

Newell Eaton: Right.

Bill Berthel: There’s ambiguity that’s there. What do we do about it? So there’s this thing of not knowing, having a willingness to not know. What’s the pragmatic?

Newell Eaton: Yeah.

Bill Berthel: What do I do?

Newell Eaton: First of all, get your team together, or get, if you want to even go broader, who are people who are going to have points of view, the whole benefits of what we talk about with Dei these days, right, to get different opinions, to have inclusion, get the wisdom of the more diverse crowd.

Newell Eaton: Right?

Newell Eaton: And then from that group, I love that, one of my colleagues, Tim Hurson, wrote a book on productivity thinking, and in it, he uses this tool called what he calls the no wonder tool. What do I know? What do I wonder?

Bill Berthel: Love it.

Newell Eaton: So what do I know is what do I really know? What are facts or in ontological terms, what are assertions? Right.

Newell Eaton: What do we really know? They’re facts. What are opinions or assessments or guesses? Well, some of those have more probability they could still fit in the no category. And what are our assumptions about reality and getting a group to do that. But then what do we wonder? And that’s where we start looking at alternative futures or alternative possibilities. So by even doing that, not that those futures happen that way, but the process of engaging in that, like the benefit of planning, is you at least are preparing yourself for alternative futures, you’ve got kind of a game plan on what you’re going to do with change when it happens, all of a sudden, someone gets sick who’s going to take their role. Right. That type of being, clarity about those kinds of things. An organization that does that is then much better prepared to deal with alternative futures.

Bill Berthel: It sounds to me like a lot of paradoxes, or the topic of polarity management, which, you and I have talked about, we’ve talked about on our podcast. This really comes in play here, because I have a plan. I have some structure, but I’m imagining not knowing will also require a great deal of flexibility and adaptability in my plan, perhaps. Right.

Bill Berthel: Because I’m going to discover some of my wonderment is going to uncover things I could not have planned for. And so adaptability is going to be really important there.

Newell Eaton: Exactly. I mean, I’ll use what we’re doing right now. I entered this call with like, oh, there’s some things I might want to talk about. I didn’t know what I was going to say. We’ve drifted in some directions that were kind of like, maybe in my footnotes of, oh, maybe we’ll go over there. But it flowed that way. Right.

Newell Eaton: I didn’t know this was going to happen. I mean, I’m really appreciating our conversation, Bill, because I think it’s gone where it needed to go for whatever that means.

Newell Eaton: We’ll assess that at the end, afterwards, perhaps. But so much of accepting that is really, how does someone become a resilient leader and create teams that have that flexibility? I’m talking about that because that’s the space I mainly focus on and see where it can have the most impact on the world. That whole notion that the world’s going to change because of the quality of leadership that we create, conscious leadership, is the answer. So how do we build that? Well, power of non knowing is one of the core competencies I think we need to help leaders develop.

Bill Berthel: Yeah, I so agree.

Newell, talk to me a little bit about how you guide or work with leaders. Know this isn’t easy when there’s expectations on me. I’ve got specific goals and objectives to deliver for my organization or for my boss man, just letting go doesn’t feel like the thing to do. I’ve got to deliver.

Newell Eaton: Yeah, well, it’s not letting go.

Bill Berthel: Yes.

Bill Berthel: Good. Differentiate for me,

Newell Eaton: It’s recognizing, I do not know, or I may suspect I might have a notion of what it is, but I really don’t know. To really recognize I’m jumping to conclusions or I’m making some assumptions. Who do I know or where might I find out how to know if that exists and then if that doesn’t exist? Because sometimes it doesn’t exist, how do I get a group of us together, like I was saying a little bit earlier, that we can at least come up with the highest probability or at least some alternative scenarios.

Newell Eaton: And so it’s more than one person observing that future, but you’ve built trust in your team that everybody’s, like, kind of working together on.

Newell Eaton: Because all those different eyes and points of view can really start to see it, perhaps with a better chance of success.

Bill Berthel: And it speaks to the importance and value of how we build our teams and develop our teams. Right.

Bill Berthel: As much as we can plan that at the highest probability of diverse skill sets on our team to get that collective intelligence, any one individual, there’s kind.

Newell Eaton: Of a freedom in it.

Speaker B: I.

Newell Eaton: Actually do some embodiment activities around it where I ask people to just realize they can’t control gravity. Right?

Newell Eaton: Yes, they can count on gravity, at least up till now. Right.

Bill Berthel: And I try to lessen my relationship with it by losing weight. But hear what you’re saying.

Newell Eaton: But the notion of gravitas, right. it’s like, notice you can trust gravity, right? So really beginning with what are things you could really trust? If you try and stop breathing, you won’t succeed. Your body will breathe for you. It’s sort of developing your inside game. I sometimes think of leadership development as we help people develop their inside game first so that they can really be more effective with their outside game. Right.

Newell Eaton: But it begins inside. It doesn’t begin outside. A lot of times they want us to work first on their outside game, when really you got to get the inside, their embodied sense, their emotional capacity, their capacity to think in various ways so that they can really bring their best of what they got to offer the world forward. And that learning to know yourself is knowable, at least some of it. So how do we start with, what can you really know about yourself? So when you’re dealing with that external unknown, you’re feeling more assurance, or even if you’re feeling unsure, you know, you’re unsure so that you can reach. It’s the getting to that self awareness level and being, learning to count on others that really, I think really matters. In using this not knowing principle, I.

Bill Berthel: So appreciate the concept of embodying the lack of that control, like our relationship with gravity or our inability to stop breathing. Yeah.

Bill Berthel: Love that we can remind ourselves, we can ground and center ourselves in that that’s right, yeah. beautiful.

Bill Berthel: Newell, I choose a word or a theme for myself for every year, and I want to share with you that 2024. My word is adventure. And my theme is to have more exploration and wonder through adventure. This conversation is centered in that space. For me, I’m really appreciating it personally, because often adventure is defined in a way where you’re out doing something potentially unknown and or dangerous. Right.

Bill Berthel: Danger is usually associated with that idea of adventure. And I wonder, what do you think about that idea as we navigate the unknown? How do we navigate those risks or those potential dangers?

Newell Eaton: Yeah, I think you’ve named part of it as a way to begin, is how do we be curious? How do we open up our curiosity? Even before that, it’s like, how do we appreciate ourselves, the world we’ve been given, the life we’ve been given, how do we start with those fundamentals? Because sometimes people are so out there. The miracle of being a human being. Right. And the miracle of being the human that we are. I just find that people don’t spend enough time in appreciation of really the life they’ve been given. So it’s like starting with that. When someone can be curious, they’ve already, in a way, like yourself, you’ve already have some inner appreciation of that.

Newell Eaton: It’s a precondition for it. And beyond appreciation, it’s enjoying life. How many stressed out people do we have? It’s like, hey, we’re pretty privileged. Can you enjoy your privilege? Rather than be guilty about your privilege, can you just be in that kind of awareness and appreciation of self and enjoyment? From there, adventure begins, because then you’ve got a foundation for curiosity and you can move out. And a lot of times I find people are so lost with the outside and really what some would call an adult development, socialized mind, that they really aren’t ready for that self discovery, that self authoring, and the excitement that we have as coaches is to really help people to recognize that and begin to just even take the pause to pay attention to themselves rather than all that out focus. I call it the breath marks. In the sheet of music. Anybody reads music, there are these breath marks. How are you picking breath marks in your life? Right?

Bill Berthel: Yeah, so it’s those strategic pauses, that self reflection, breath pauses. We have that opportunity to recenter ourselves or appreciate ourselves.

Newell Eaton: Yeah, yeah, I think that’s where it begins. Bill.

Bill Berthel: What I love about this space we’re talking about is, I liken it to that fertile ground for creativity. This is the space that maybe more pure or genuine creativity is really venturing into something that’s unknown. We’re creating something.

Newell Eaton: Exactly.

Bill Berthel: Perhaps every creation is created twice. There’s a thought and then a manifestation of that. But even to have that thought, we have to be able to say, oh, I didn’t know that before.

Newell Eaton: Yeah.

Bill Berthel: Otherwise it’s just a duplication, not a creation.

Newell Eaton: Yeah.

Newell Eaton: I’ve been really listening and reading a lot from Ursula Laguin’s, not her Sci-Fi so much, but her opinion pieces around. Oh, she does this beautiful talk, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot about the word she prefers to creativity, because creativity has been kind of taken over by Madison Avenue, is like creativity is to produce a profit, right? Uses the word imagination, I love it. And so imagining, it’s like visioning. So she would like to call her work imaginary fiction, not science fiction or whatever. I’m interested in peaking people’s imagination now. It’s really my, adopted new vocabulary. Not that I’ve been teaching creative problem solving for how many years now? 25 years.

Bill Berthel: Sure.

Newell Eaton: So it’s in there. But I’m intrigued by, and when you think about the unknown, how do we imagine a future?

Bill Berthel: Yes.

Newell Eaton: Rather than create a future, it’s a little more ephemeral, perhaps, but I think it offers more stretch.

Bill Berthel: It also invites the power of not knowing, doesn’t it?

Newell Eaton: Sure does.

Bill Berthel: It really invites that power of not knowing. Imagine what we don’t know, imagine what we’re not yet.

Newell Eaton: That’s right. Yeah.

Bill Berthel: I love it, thank you.

Newell Eaton: Oh, thank you. This has been a wonderful conversation. Appreciate it, Bill.

Bill Berthel: Always. And thanks for listening. You can listen to a new podcast two times every month here at Get Emergent or wherever you listen to your podcasts. This is where we bring you contemporary leadership topics and ideas balanced with what we hope you find are better practices that you can apply directly to your work and your leadership. Thanks for listening.

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