LOCKED Series #4: The Execution Leadership Checklist – Knowledge


I know only that I know nothing.
– Socrates (attributed)

For me, there is really only one big choice to make in life: Are you willing to fight to find out what’s true? Do you deeply believe that finding out what is true is essential to your well-being?
– Ray Dalio

I’m a big fan of Socrates, but it’s not practical to adopt Socrates’ position on knowledge; to reject everything we think we know. We have to accept some things as fact if we are to achieve anything in the real world. Finding the truth is more important now than ever because knowledge informs action. Actions have complex, cascading effects upon everything and everyone around us. When you understand the purpose behind your action it easier to implement execution leadership.

To successfully achieve execution leadership, consider Ray Dalio’s position on truth. Be relentless in our pursuit of truth and remain open to revising what you believe is true. For decades, management scholars have recognized a fundamental shift in the kind of work performed in the modern economy – a transition to knowledge work.

How we manage knowledge is an important aspect of leadership in the 21st Century.

We also live in a world where data and information are readily available but do not necessarily equate to knowledge. Furthermore, the knowledge requirements to succeed in a complex world exceed that of any single human being. Thus, teams of individuals with varying knowledge specializations are needed to meet complex challenges. Consider the three categories of knowledge made famous by former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld:

  • Knowledge that is explicit and readily available to us – we know what we know.
  • Knowledge that we lack – we know what we don’t know.
  • Complete lack of awareness of a knowledge gap – we don’t know what we don’t know.

There’s a further complication, however, the things we falsely believe are true. We might call this class – we think we know but don’t. We address this class in the “E” (the previous or third article in this series) by debriefing as teams.

Using, finding, and developing knowledge is the subject of this section of the leadership checklist. Let’s take a look at some of the explicit actions leaders should take.

Execution Leadership Means Taking Action!

Avoid analysis paralysis. Knowledge is rarely complete. In the complex modern environment, we are rarely capable of acquiring all the information we would like to have to make decisions and establish courses of action. Nothing is certain and the future is both unpredictable and surprising. If we wait for perfect information, it is unlikely to come.

Inaction often leads to obsolescence and irrelevance.

We must gather available information, seek additional information within reason while being careful not to allow opportunities to pass. Execution leaders tend to fear acts of commission whereas, in most environments, acts of omission have greater negative consequences. Leaders have a bias for action. Take small actions when possible to test the hypothesis, innovative ideas and learn from doing. When you find a viable solution, pursue it aggressively! In the complex modern world, it’s not so much what you know as what you can learn that makes the difference – and you learn best by doing.

Actions: Think about what decisions, tasks or plans you may be postponing. Gather your team, collaborate, plan and execute the plan.

Utilize Cognitive Diversity & Subject Matter Expertise

No one of us is as smart as all of us. This is especially true in the complex and rapidly changing modern world where getting the right knowledge together to inform successful action is like putting together a puzzle. Lone geniuses rarely provide the insightfulness and innovation necessary to survive and thrive.

It takes a team of cognitively diverse individuals who have the capacity to view challenges from varying perspectives and contribute expertise in a variety of fields.

Diversity of race, sex, and national origin are only a few aspects of true diversity. Though such differences do contribute to varying perspectives and add valuable insight to complex problems, do not limit your definition of diversity when inviting members to a team.

Actions: Ask yourself what sources of diversity you need to gather the right knowledge to be successful. Have you considered: expertise relevant to the challenge, experience, education, specialization, functional representation (finance, HR, IT, legal, etc.), personality or temperament, culture, generation/age, etc.

Incorporate Lessons Learned

Capturing and incorporating lessons learned requires a formal and disciplined cycle of planning and debriefing at organizational, strategic and tactical levels. Lessons learned are generated in the debriefing process, but are incorporated into the planning process in order to continuously improve.

Actions: If you don’t have a lessons-learned database to pull from, then you must rely upon the checklist item above and/or incorporate a Red Team step that I addressed in the preceding article on the ‘E’ for experience. Also, ensure that you have referenced any standards or standard operating procedures that your team or organization may have that are relevant to the task.

Train to Close Knowledge Gaps

One of the most often cited root causes for error is training. Good leaders identify knowledge gaps and seek to train their teams to close those gaps. Execution leadership requires In the modern, fast-paced world, new training requirements are constantly arising.

Relying upon organizational training and development departments to determine training needs and deliver training is to abdicate your responsibility as a leader.

Seek the traditional training and development departments for support, but do not rely upon them to solve your training challenges. Leaders must take an active role.

Actions: What do you and members of your team need to learn to keep up with the dizzying speed of change? Find training on those gaps. Leaders are readers! What are you reading that improves your understanding of your world, your organization, and your professional interests?

Execution Leaderships Works To Develop Others

Development is not just about training! You train someone to learn a new skill. Training is limited and objective. Developing individuals on your team is a long-range, fully inclusive, and never-ending process. Development is as much for individual’s future success as it is for the organization’s benefit. As a leader, you must identify ways to help members of your team improve their professional skills and, ultimately to take on greater responsibility – whether in their current organization or in another! Development is a selfless good that benefits all – it’s a ‘pay forward’ undertaking.

There are endless ways to develop members of your team. You can invest a lot by sending them back to school for a degree. But, there are some very important things you can do that cost nothing and only requires a little risk and some trust.

The best thing for executive leaders to do, is to give less-experienced individuals an opportunity to lead a project or other important activity.

Actions: Development means you must develop future leaders. The people that will take your place when you are gone. For example, San Antonio Spurs head coach, Gregg Popovich, and his staff will ‘stop coaching’ from time to time so that the team must work together to find solutions on their own. When is a good time for you to ‘stop coaching’ and let members of your team lead the way on their own?

What do you and your team know? What do you not know? Take stock of your knowledge level and then take action to close gaps. A good leader must be a life-long learner. Be both specific and general in your commitment to learning new things. Search broadly to improve your understanding of the world. A holistic understanding will improve your ability to anticipate the unknown unknowns.