Recently, some friends in Asheville, NC introduced me to the River Arts District where I discovered an unexpected nugget of wisdom.

Here, amid a collection of art studios down by the French Broad River, I had an encounter with a prolific, internationally known painter at his studio / gallery.

He was preparing to take the stage to demonstrate his craft.  He chatted with a few members of the audience as he set up. “What are you going to paint today?” asked one. Without batting an eye, the artist confidently replied “I don’t know.”

I don’t know. Too often, this thought stops me in my tracks.  Like many of my clients, it is easy for me to convince myself that I’m being paid as an expert; or, if they are bosses, to always have the answer.   Admitting I don’t know is something we’ve learned should be avoided because it brings up feelings of inadequacy and incompetence.

Yet for this artist, I don’t know had unusual meaning and power.  It expressed his openness to creativity and to collaborating with his brushes, paints, and canvas. He was constrained neither by self-criticism nor by expectations of pre-ordained results.   He was not made weak by his need for the approval of others. He was free to express himself in the moment, to create, to discover. He was able to do things he had never done before with trust and confidence in his ability to listen to the creative energies within him and around him.

As an executive coach, I have learned that my greatest value lies not in what I know, but rather in creating conditions for clients to push into their world of “not knowing.” I’ve developed the discipline to ask questions that I, myself, don’t know the answer to.  Early in my practice, this was scary; I thought it was my job to “lead” clients to my wisdom.  Now, I am more excited by the possibility that when I ask a question, it might yield a long pause, then the response, “that’s a really good question.” Hopefully, this is followed by a second pause, and perhaps an under-the-breath, “I don’t know…”

An MIT engineering friend of mine refers to this instant as the “exciting moment where awesomeness happens.”  I’ve also learned that my clients, having uttered, “I don’t know,” often expect me to then assume responsibility for the conversation.  When I’m at my best, I don’t take the bait, but rather, inquire, “You don’t know, or won’t say?”

Too often I don’t know is a knee-jerk response we use to avoid thinking hard about a question that doesn’t have an immediate right answer.  Yet ironically, questions without easy answers are the domain of seasoned leaders.  I’m frequently surprised at how uncomfortable mid-level leaders are at dealing with questions they’ve never been asked.

Sometimes, even fast-tracked leaders hoard work that they are especially gifted at rather than delegating. Or worse, they compete with their direct reports to answer questions that they know the answers to. The skill that leaders most need to develop is having the patience to explore with rigor what they don’t know.  This, of course, requires leaders to be at peace with taking the risk of being wrong in the interest of generating new insight.

Sometimes, I don’t know is code for “I am not willing to take a risk with you.” As a coach, this is a test to see if I have created an environment in which I can be experienced as trustworthy. If clients (or subordinates, or offspring, or spouses, for that matter) believe that ridicule is a possible outcome from thinking aloud, they will shut down. Wouldn’t you?

Too often, the need to be seen as competent prevents both coach and client from taking the risk of being wrong. It stops us from freely exploring what we do know and applying that in creative ways to come up with ideas and insights. Knowledge is important, but as Napoleon Bonaparte said, “Imagination rules the world.”

I don’t know does not always mean what it says. Effective leaders should realize that I don’t know is not an impenetrable wall, but is another doorway to enter. I don’t know is another opportunity to help others build trust, to express their creativity, to explore their wisdom, and to imagine possibilities.