I once had to evacuate Houston for a hurricane and then had to “reevacuate”—that’s what I call it when everyone rushes back into the place they left in such a hurry. I’m lost on the outskirts of town, so I pull into a gas station where I see this crusty old guy sitting outside. I’m judging him immediately, right? I’m thinking this guy’s so old that he looks like he’s not going to live through the conversation.
My gas station friend has fishing hooks in his hat, and he’s got that faraway look in his eye, like I’m not going to get very good information from the man. I try anyway.
“Excuse me, sir. I’m trying to get back into Houston. Can you help me?”
He says, “What road did you come in on?”
C’mon. You just watched me pull in, didn’t you?
I say, “Well, the road you’re on. There’s one road, and you’re on it. I came here on the road your gas station’s on.” This guy is not winning any Nobel Prize, I conclude.
He says, “Well, what you want to do is go down the road a piece.”
A piece? “A piece of what? What does that mean?” I ask.
“You know, some miles.”
“One mile? A million miles?” Work with me, gas station man!
“What you do is go down the road a piece. There’s going to be like a highway, and there’s going to be a hump on this highway; get to the top of that hump, look outcher window and you’ll see like a dirt road, a pond, and a trailer park.” He pauses. “Don’t go in there. Stay on that main road, and take a left where the old schoolhouse used to be.”
OK, gas station funnyman. We’re going to go over this one more time.
“You’re telling me to take a left at a landmark I’ve never heard of that no longer exists. Is that correct?” Then I snap and use the D word. “Are you just dumb?”
He says, “You know something, son, I ain’t the smartest man around these parts. But then again, boy, I ain’t lost neither.”
I learned a valuable lesson in that exchange: Everybody knows something you don’t. The minute you think you know it all, your wisdom vanishes. In that moment when you think you no longer need input from anyone, wisdom leaves you. Your aptitude, your experience, your talent, your skill, and your time on the job—that all stays. Just the wisdom vanishes.
This lesson was as applicable during my encounter with gas station man as it has been in my work as a speaker and consultant. When I’m in front of the CEO, the CEO has to know more about his organization than I do. The minute I think I know it all, I greatly reduce my power to be effective or influential. I’m pretty sure nothing good comes from telling a CEO that I know more than he does.
Interestingly, the lesson is well known among some of the top performers we interviewed, especially those in leadership positions. We noticed that they were not afraid to admit they didn’t know it all. As a result, they knew the value of collecting information from people around them. These leaders might or might not incorporate people’s ideas into their decisions, but the information they’ve gathered allows them to understand where everybody’s coming from. They can deliver their decisions in a way that signals a true understanding of what the people around them value. You can deliver decisions in many ways, but you can’t be influential unless you know what someone values. So realizing that everybody knows something you don’t and then being willing to gather (and maybe even use!) information can position you to succeed in a big way.
Do you remember the TV show Lassie? Remember little Timmy? On the show, little Timmy would always be in his house when Lassie would rush in and bark. Timmy would put his hand to his ear and say, “What? What, Lassie? There’s a horse with his foot caught in the railroad tracks?” Apparently, Timmy spoke fluent dog.
Remember the TV show Flipper? Flipper was pretty much just a liquid Lassie. Flipper the dolphin could sound off to his human friend who would say, “What? What, Flipper? There’s a horse in trouble at the lagoon?” You could put those two shows together and call it Flassie.
The point here isn’t that I wish I could translate animal talk. (In reality, Dr. Doolittle seemed pretty miserable.) But Lassie and Flipper didn’t have to speak a human language or understand the details of their situation to deliver the most important information, which was “Go now!” The message of these shows was “trouble’s a-brewin’, and this animal knows something we don’t.”
I think most people understand at a basic level that everyone knows something we don’t. We just forget that sometimes when it’s time to position ourselves to be successful. But people who never forget it, like the insurance salesman I interviewed, have a great chance to stand out above their peers, giving them a distinct advantage.