Ignorance, Incompetence, and Impostors

Leaders experience all of these. How to make the most of them.

Leaders experience all of these. How to make the most of them.

"Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge." — Charles Darwin, 1871

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If you were granted the opportunity to choose between two states of being, which would you prefer: being stupid but not realizing it, or being intelligent but not believing it?

Ignorance itself isn’t something to be ashamed of. We’re all ignorant in certain areas. When combined with a lack of self-awareness though, it could mean the difference between being harmless and dangerous.

Humility isn’t dishonorable either. Or perhaps you wouldn't consider not believing your own intelligence to be defined as humility; maybe you prefer the phrase de rigueur: impostor syndrome.

Given the choice between these two states of being, which would you choose?

“Ignorance is bliss,” as the saying goes, but that only applies to the ignorant―those on one side of the equation. What about those whom are the victims of ignorance, whether it's hapless or willful? The principled among us would feel responsibility for any damage our actions cause others. The ignorant? Not so much. I'm not sure I could live with such a state of being.

"The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world, the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt." – Bertrand Russell, 1933

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In Mortals and Others, the philosopher Bertrand Russell included a scathing essay titled “The Triumph of Stupidity,” written in 1933. It was aimed at Germany, but could just as well apply to America today. In addition to this misplaced sense of confidence, he also points out that along the way, there's a moral failing as well:

if intelligence is to be effective, it will have to be combined with a moral fervour which it usually possessed in the past but now usually lacks.”


Amid the COVID-19 response, we've seen a moral failing in scientific leaders who have missed opportunities to speak up when political leadership says misguided or ignorant things. The willful and hapless ignorance of these leaders resulted in cases and deaths that outstrip the rest of the world.

Conflicting messages and uncertainty, combined with many Americans’ desire to get back to normalcy and lack of self-discipline, combined with their skepticism of scientific experts, have given us an America that is woefully ignorant of its decline.

This might be summed up most succinctly in a quote from Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), who said on June 30, 2020, in a pandemic hearing regarding the role of public health in the reopening of schools: We shouldn't presume that a group of experts somehow knows what's best for everyone.”

I’m sorry—what?


The Dunning-Kruger Effect on a National Scale

The Dunning-Kruger effect, named for social psychologists David Dunning (University of Michigan) and Justin Kruger (New York University's Stern School of Business), states that people of average abilities tend to overestimate their competence, while those of above-average abilities tend not to realize how proficient they are. That is, confidence does not align with competence. It's illustrated in this graph:

The loudest voices tend to have the most confidence but little competence.

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In the animal kingdom, the ape or the lion expresses domination by virtue of a roar, but their sounds are backed up by ability. The weaker animal who tries to dominate by voice can receive his comeuppance with a drubbing if his physical abilities don't match his vocal abilities.

"What a king must suffer! For he knows, deep down in his heart, that he is a poor, cheap, wormy thing like the rest of us, a sarcasm, the Creator's prime miscarriage in inventions, the moral inferior of all the animals… the superior of them all in one gift only, and that one not up to his estimation of it — intellect." — Mark Twain, 1906

With humans? Not so much. We often see leaders asserting their primacy of knowledge in a wide variety of subjects. It’s impossible for anyone to master many topics; this is why the best leaders assemble teams that contain subject matter experts, and then rely on them for advice and counsel.

Leaders and experts know that there are limits to what they know; if they're presented with something outside of their sphere of knowledge, they're not afraid to say “I don’t know.”

Add to this the concept of cognitive dissonance, and it complicates matters further. The minute we make any decision we begin to justify the wisdom of our choice and find reasons to dismiss alternatives.


Incompetence At Your Service

You've probably encountered your fair share of leaders in business who don't seem to have the skills to match their positions. This was first captured as an idea by Dr. Laurence Peter in his 1969 satire The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong. Stated simply, the Peter Principle is this:

“In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.”

It’s based on the idea that employees will continue to receive promotions until they ultimately land in a position that’s above their skill set. We often reward individual performers for success that has nothing to do with the positions they’ll be placed in next.

That is, we might see a proficient analyst or marketer, and based on the successes they’ve generated, put them in leadership positions.

“I consider my ability to arouse enthusiasm among the men the greatest asset I possess, and the way to develop the best that is in a man is by appreciation and encouragement.” — Charles M. Schwab, 1897

Leadership requires a different set of skills than positions of individual performance. It’s one thing to hone a deep level of expertise in a specific area; it’s quite another to handle the functions of management and leadership. Suddenly, you're no longer responsible for the output—you're responsible for your people.


Have you ever found yourself in the midst of a project, a speech, or strategic planning and thought, “I shouldn’t be here. I don’t have the skills or the ability to do this, even though people think I do.”? If so, you’ve experienced an aspect of impostor syndrome.

Despite astonishing accomplishments, some people still feel a nagging sense of self-doubt and severe inadequacy. They might even feel like frauds.

Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, but talent instantly recognizes genius." – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1914

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Even though many people struggle with impostor syndrome, I see two upsides to this.

The first is its evidence of self-reflection. Good leaders have a high degree of emotional intelligence (EQ), and one aspect of EQ is self-awareness. You can’t have self-awareness without reflection. So, even though impostor syndrome brings self-doubt, you can be sure that those who struggle with it are not suffering from ignorance.

The second point is a corollary to the first:

Intelligence looks in the mirror and sees ignorance. Ignorance looks in the mirror and sees intelligence. The only people who don't suffer from impostor syndrome are actual impostors.

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Remember that.


What's a Leader to Do?

As we try to bridge the gap between ignorance and competence, and to provide ourselves and others with well-reasoned rationales, there are a few steps we can take to minimize detrimental behavior.

  1. Don’t assume everyone knows what you know. Even if there are certain topics that come easy to you, take the time to bring everyone along on the journey. Overcommunicate without being patronizing.

  2. Make it okay for people to ask questions. No castigating or belittling: we are all on different stages of our journeys, whether it's in a career or in life.

  3. Failure is an option. We don't want to celebrate incompetence, but we should acknowledge it, free of stigma, and encourage learning from mistakes. To ignore it or punish it outright only gives people reasons to hide failures.

  4. Set time aside for reflection. Self-assessment is an always-on effort. We learn by honestly assessing our words and actions with others. Encourage self-reflection in your team as well.

  5. Find your inspiration. Look to others you admire and try to understand their journey to success. Yours may not be identical, but you can learn from them.

And don’t forget Hanlon’s razor

“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

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So have you decided whether you’d rather be stupid without realizing it, or intelligent but doubtful of it?

It’s not an easy choice—and of course it’s a false one because these are not absolutes. But given the choice between the two, the latter at least provides a path toward enlightenment.

And a path forward is all we can ask.

If you enjoyed this week’s newsletter, here’s the follow-up essay:

A Nagging Doubt


“Fortune always will confer an aura of worth, unworthily, and in this world the lucky person passes for a genius.” — Euripides, 429 BC


The reasons why people become incompetent at work. (BBC)



You've probably seen the comic genius Sarah Cooper, who makes videos based on incompetence. In a way, it was her ultimate goal in life: "I think I wanted to be somebody who could BS my way through life. Like, I’m jealous. I could never get away with that.” (Hollywood Reporter)



Justifying our own choices: the role of cognitive dissonance in the pandemic. (The Atlantic)



"There are two different types of people in the world, those who want to know, and those who want to believe." ― Friedrich Nietzsche


There are two types of knowledge: earned knowledge, where you put in the work, and pretend knowledge, where you've gleaned it from the work that others have put in. The Max Planck/Chauffeur Test. (Farnam Street)



"Nerds serve two masters. They want to be popular, certainly, but they want even more to be smart. And popularity is not something you can do in your spare time, not in the fiercely competitive environment of an American secondary school." Why Nerds Are Unpopular. (Paul Graham)


What is it about the Spanish that makes them think amateurs are skillful enough artisans that they can restore precious works of art? Spain is calling for regulation of art restoration after the latest series of botched efforts. (The Guardian)

I couldn't help but be reminded of Mr. Bean's efforts to restore a damaged Whistler.

Recommended Listening / Reading

"To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child." ― Cicero

🎧 Dr. Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, joins the Life + Leadership Podcast in this episode to discuss this phenomenon of feeling less capable or talented than people think—despite ample evidence to the contrary—that impacts 70% of the population.

📘 Own Your Greatness: Overcome Impostor Syndrome, Beat Self-Doubt, and Succeed in Life by Drs. Lisa Orbé-Austin & Richard Orbé-Austin will give you all the tools you need to recognize and overcome the impostor syndrome that is holding you back. Packed full of research- and therapy-backed exercises, prompts, and activities, this interactive workbook will help you identify the root causes of your impostor syndrome, recognize your natural skills and strengths, gain the confidence to lead, speak up for yourself, and feel comfortable receiving and giving praise.

How about helping others become less ignorant and more informed? Do your part:



Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.