So, a few months ago I had written about the Johari window. This window was developed by psychologists Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham in 1955. They used it as a technique to help people better understand their relationship with themselves and their relationship with others. It is a concept also regularly used in project management and strategic planning.
Donald Rumsfeld, former US secretary of defence, famously used it during a news briefing in 2002. So much so that the Johari window overlaps with the resultant Rumsfeld Matrix. The exact quote by Rumsfeld was “there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don’t know”.
So, known knowns are things like facts that are clear and accepted, in which we are confident. They often relate to job tasks that we do every day with which we are absolute in our knowledge and capacity.
Known unknowns are things we are aware of but do not understand. The things we know we do not know. These are areas for us to explore, investigate and understand and make it something that we get to know. In the working world, it relates to going into a sector where you are out of your depth. For me, I know I do not know engineering and mechanics. Not my thing at all. I am quite happy to defer to the experts in this area. Definitely things I know that I do not know.
The unknown knowns are things like instincts and intuition. They relate to things you understand but are not fully aware. Things you are not sure why you know but you just know. They also relate to things that have become automatic, basic, second nature, subconscious, unconscious and background to you that you do not even realise you know.
The unknown unknowns, though, are the most interesting parts. Those are the ones you do not know that you do not know. You could actually appreciate this when you look back five and ten years ago. You realise there is so much you know now and learned over the years, that ten years ago you did not know that you did not know. As you learn and grow, you see things that you never saw before. The landscape thankfully widens, and you realise a whole new reality of things to know.
The Rumsfeld Matrix also has a leadership interpretation. It is called the blind spot matrix of leadership awareness. There is the known strengths section, where the leader knows what they know. Then the known weaknesses section, where the leader knows what they do not know, like me with mechanics and electricals, etc.
In the unknown strength section, sometimes we do not realise our ability in an area until we are faced with the challenge, so this is the don’t know what we know section. And the last is the blind spot, where we are not even aware of what we do not know. This is an important concept for leaders to realise that there are some things they do not even know that they do not know, so they have to be ever learning and keeping themselves open to new concepts, perceptions, knowledge and thought processes.
This piggy backs onto the Dunning Kruger effect. This was from a study by David Dunning and Justin Kruger in 1999. Many studies have been done since then and found the same cognitive bias effect. It is found that persons of low ability, expertise or experience regarding a task or area of knowledge tend to overestimate their ability or knowledge; whilst on the opposite side, persons who are highly skilled and knowledgeable tend to underestimate their ability or expertise as compared to others.
So, the less smart someone is, the more they overestimate how smart they are, and less they think they need to know. This makes sense. If your sphere of knowledge and awareness is small, then you would think there is not much further to go to know almost everything. But if you are an expert, your sphere of knowledge would be almost infinite and you would realise in the grand scheme of things, you know relatively little and have a long way to go.
The beginning, the germ, the root, the base of a true leader is one who first understands they know very little and have so much more to learn and grow and be taught. The mark, the sign, the emblem of a true leader is to understand that we all have blind spots and there are leadership blind spots of things we do not know at this stage that we do not know. The trick is to have humility and try to go beyond what we are seeing, go beyond what we are thinking, go beyond where we are standing.
Two of my favourite leadership quotes are “Earn your leadership every day” from Michael Jordan, the basketball GOAT; and “To lead people, walk behind them” from Lao Tzu, the philosopher. Sometimes leadership is taking a pause, reflecting and starting over from the beginning, the om state, of nothing, and everything. Sometimes leadership is first understanding that you actually know nothing.
—Dr Joanne F Paul is an emergency medicine lecturer with The UWI and a member of TEL institute.