Why Knowledge Isn’t Power, And Not Knowing Is

When Sara Blakely came up with the idea for Spanx, she had never taken a business course, had failed the LSAT twice and was selling fax machines door-to-door to make a living. She knew nothing about business, inventing things, or hosiery. And because she knew nothing, she changed the industry.

“The big secret behind disruption is not having any idea how it’s supposed to be done,” Blakely said at the Forbes Under 30 Summit in October. “If you let what you don’t know become your greatest asset, you are bound to do things very differently.”

In an industry that had revolved around how things were always done, Blakely cold-called her way to success—from finding a manufacturer willing to make Spanx to a lawyer willing to help with the patent to a store willing to sell them. Finally, after years of hard work, she herself got a call—from Oprah Winfrey. No one yet knew they wanted Spanx, but this new company was about to disrupt an industry that didn’t know it needed disruption. And all while Blakely didn’t know what she was doing, but did it anyway.

Knowledge Isn’t Power

Conventional wisdom says knowledge is power. But when it comes to the kind of leadership that produces extraordinary, “reality-bending” outcomes—breakthrough leadership—the opposite is also true.

“‘Knowledge is power’ is half of the truth,” said Mitzie Almquist, Chief Leadership Officer for business performance consulting firm Gap International. “The other half of the truth is that not knowing is equally powerful.”

The Limits of Knowledge

There is obviously a need for knowledge, and it plays an important role in leadership. Before a leader can successfully guide an organization beyond the boundaries of what’s possible, he or she must first know everything there is to know about what the organization is capable of. But operating only from within that knowledge base severely stunts potential.

“It limits what’s possible,” Almquist said. “It could be a huge knowledge base, but compared to all that we don’t know, what we do know is very limiting.”

Consider the wealth of knowledge accumulated about manufacturing since the Industrial Revolution. While that knowledge is critical to anyone in the world who makes things, nothing about assembly lines or outsourcing would have naturally evolved into 3D printing. Yet this relatively new concept is already beginning to change the way the world makes things, disrupting the entire manufacturing industry.

Almquist explains that breaking into the realm of the unknown is how, “innovative products and amazing things happen within the marketplace. These people have gone way beyond what they know—into what some might call the ridiculous.”

The Power of the Unknown

Embracing the unknown isn’t a role for just anyone. It’s the job of leadership to tap into the disruptive power of not knowing. While a well-run organization maintains its current reality on its own, leaders must take on the task of envisioning and inspiring the unknown future. But it’s not necessarily an easy job.

“People are paid to know. People are proud of what they know,” said Almquist. “And so, sometimes it’s hard to acknowledge that what we know will not be enough.”

Practice and discipline are the keys to getting comfortable in the uncomfortable realm of not knowing. Every obstacle and challenge can be an opportunity to try it.

“The major catalyst for power [in not knowing] is putting a stake in the ground; to commit to it,” Almquist said. “Wanting it will be insufficient. Needing won’t ever get us there. What is going to help drive us there is committing to it and saying it shall be.”

Following the path of not knowing led Blakely to become the youngest self-made female billionaire in the world, growing her company without formally advertising or seeking outside investors. And it’s a mindset she passes on to her staff.

At the Under 30 Summit, Blakely described a mental exercise she conducts with her employees at Spanx: “Close your eyes, and pretend like you have no idea how to do your job… If no one had shown you how to do your job, how would you be doing it? But it takes asking those questions… to say, is there a better way?”


Knowles Systems