Does a leader need to know everything?

leader know everything

Is being a leader a service job or an insurmountable task of being perfect in every respect? Does a leader have to know more than everybody else?

In my opinion the mission of a successful leader is to make sure colleagues know more than he/she does about the tasks each of them are carrying out. Have interviewed a multitude of heads of states and without failure they had several advisers present who, if necessary, filled in regarding details and areas the president didn’t know about.

Nobody’s perfect

So why do so many heads of companies and organisations believe they have to know everything there is to know? In today’s business climate it’s impossible to master everything. On top of it it’s futile to try to know everything. Nobody does. So don’t make your business dependent on one or two people only.

It’s the leaders job to make sure that the company rests on a huge platform of knowledge and competence. And to ensure the staff really know what they are doing, not that you beat them to it in every respect.

Are you competing with your staff?

Are you a leader that gets stressed by colleagues knowing more than you do? How about looking at it as the day your staff are more skilled in what they are doing than you are, you have succeeded?

Leaders that competes with their colleagues are detrimental to the organisation they are running. Compare that with Ronald Reagan, a good example of a leader who didn’t know everything but surrounded himself with experts that did and listened to them. Another prime example is Richard Branson who delegates to qualified people. And it’s no secret that they are both regarded as very successful leaders. So how about following in their footsteps and make sure you thoroughly master the art of leadership and allow your colleagues to be experts at what they are doing? If you do, you will not only succeed as a leader but make sure your business flourish as well. Provided of course you listen to the experts you surround yourself with.

Picture: Manuel QC

128 thoughts on “Does a leader need to know everything?

  1. A leader certainly must have some, even limited, knowledge on a topic, but cannot be an expert on it. This is why they hire others, otherwise they could do the job by themselves.
    The important aspect of the question is, does the leader trust the knowledge of others. They must depend on that information and expertise, but they must trust that they know it.

  2. Leaders most certainly do not know everything. Leaders need employees with expertise in a number of areas to work alongside them. A secure leader should have no problems with their employees being more knowledgeable than them – this is why they are in the role . In the UK, CEO's can go from running a range of organisations as they focus on the strategic side of things whilst their employees focus on the operational side.

  3. There are few things more wasteful than a leader trying to know as much as everyone around them. Its an impossible task and if it could be accomplished, it wouldn't say much (good) about the organization or as you noted, the leader.

  4. I think many people get this unrealistic notion that leaders will model perfection. And when a mistake is made, it is shown over and over again on social media. But of course, it is impossible for any one person to be perfect. And the best leaders are probably those that receive great assistance in the areas that aren't their strongest. I don't think the public will ever stop expecting perfection from a leader, but the reality is that no leader excels in every direction. A smart leader knows his or her strengths and builds from there.

    1. Absolutely, Erica. And what's worse some "leaders" expect perfection from themselves. They hence become impossible to work with and if they are in powerful positions they cause a lot problems. Frequently they receive multi million dolllar compensation if they have to "resign for personal reasons".

  5. Hi Catarina, we are in the same page on this one. A great leader is one who didn't let their ego get in the way, is not intimidated by having people work for them that know more than they do in their area of expertise. A leader that feels they must know everything and be involved in every decision is not an affective leader.

  6. When embarking on their planning, the best executives consult with others before putting pen to paper. They are great askers and superb listeners. They often talk to other leaders, scholars and planners. Some even research science fiction and futurists’ books. Great leaders respect the views of their management, employees and customers regarding opportunities, constraints and emerging markets. They do not shy away from contrary opinions. They recognize that input from managers and front line people about the time and resources they will require, is necessary to gain their support for a plan and to have their performances evaluated against it.

  7. This was a hard lesson I learned in the military. You HAVE to trust the knowledge of those who are designated for that information. You must trust that information they give you as if you found it yourself. This trust is gained, by you giving them the proper training and tools so they can accomplish their job properly, when this is done, then you have not worries about what they do, or what they tell you.

  8. A good manager is one who makes himself expendable. It is the same with leadership knowledge. I think it is the insecurity and self absorption of some leaders that make them want to present themselves as knowing everything.

  9. I agree with others here that leaders do not need to know everything. In the past I was fortunate enough to work with leaders who not only realized that, but also understood that there is value in welcoming different opinions for discussion. This is not only the way we open ourselves to new ideas and become stronger by tapping into the strengths of others, it’s also the way we build new leaders.

  10. A leader does not need to know all the details. A leader needs to be able to recognize the strengths of others and know who to turn to for the details.

  11. No, a leader does not need to know everything. A leader within any organisation has appointed officers to manage specific areas. These officers bring an element of expertise which the leader either cannot or simply does not have the capacity to. If leaders feel threatened then they are insecure. Of course we are all human but it is important not to act on our insecurities if and when they arise.

  12. I personally believe that the leader must have a vision and courage to take the initiative and resolve the issues…

    No one in world is perfect and surely a leader can never be….
    But he must try to be a better man.

  13. Being a leader is not knowing everything about everything but instead surrounding yourself with people who know a lot about one thing that is relevant to your own business. Unfortunately, in particular with solo entrepreneurs, I think there is a tendency to believe you have to know it all. And sometimes it's the issue of the need to be in control. Either can hold a leader back from moving forward whether you have people on your staff who can help or people who you sub work out to. Pull people up and they will push you along to lead them. Always good Catarina.

    My recent post Make Your List: People Who Lead Introvert Conversations on Twitter

    1. Glad you agree with me, Pat. Good points you make, although I think quite a few "leaders" in multinational corporations also want to give the impression they know it all, unfortunately.

  14. Of course a leader doesn't need to know everything. Strength comes from knowing how to utilize resources and people to stay abreast of information. Montaigne's medal that he wore around his neck stated, "What do I know?" Or to quote a source from pop culture, the song "Snow" by Red Hot Chili Peppers states, "The more I see, the less I know." I despise people who profess to know everything. Teachers are expected to have all the answers. I used to really like throwing students off guard by admitting when I didn't know something, but then showing them how to come up with the answer.
    My recent post The Will to Change: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

  15. Well said Catarina. I can think of few things more futile than a leader who thinks they must know as much as all of those around her. Even more foolish is if they think they need to know more. It is not only pointless, it is counter productive. Eventually the tension it creates means that the team closest to the leader can only ever be a good as the sum of her parts…what a waste.
    My recent post Ask for the Order

    1. Yes it's a pity that far too many people believe they have to know everything, isn't it Debra. It has a negative impact on the organisation, and not to forget, themselves. Aiming for something impossible is futile.

  16. This topic hits very close to home for me Catarina! It's not what you know, its knowing what needs to be done. I know people who think it is more important to be the "smartest" person in a meeting. It's unnecessary.

    Great post! Thank you for sharing!!
    My recent post Nothing's Impossible

  17. There is a saying to look for and hire staff that is better then you are. What that means is you already get that you will never know everything and need good people that can and will provide answers when they're needed.The problem is egos get in the way, to both look for and hire the right staff and if that they do, allow them to do what they do best. Just my thoughts. 🙂
    My recent post Meadowcroft Wines 2011 Chardonnay: Wine

  18. Hello; this was a good post. I think the best examples of leaders who suffer by trying to know everything or competing with their staff are owners of professional sports teams. just look at jerry jones of the cowboys the late al davis of the raiders and to an extent early in his ownership dan shnider of the redskins. when i was in the boy scouts the leaders first goal was to teach the new scouts how we put up tents how we cleaned and put them away after a weekend trip etc. thanks for the post. keep up the hard work, max

    My recent post Learning from leaders of the amusement industry interview with Troy Powe of Wonder Jump

    1. Glad you like my article, Maxwell. Personally don't know anything about sports teams, so I don't know if you are right about their owners. Am Swedish but despite the fact that I have lived and worked all over the world I'm not familiar with the American teams you mention.

  19. I know that the higher the person is in an organisation structure, the more information he has, but it is less detailed, so, on the bottom of any organisation triangle are people who have less info, but this information is incredibly detailed. On the tip of this triangle is the leader with 100% information from levels below, but this info is less detailed.
    My recent post Halo Effect & Devil Effect in web design

  20. A good leader has people they can count on that know what they themselves don't know. You can't know everything, but you can be smart enough to surround yourself with all the knowledge.
    My recent post Tessellating Brownies

    1. Definitely, Jacqueline. Imagine if they didn't verify their experts. Mind you some don't and other hide behind ignorance. But the buck stops with the top guy no matter who made the mistake. And we hence read about CEOs having to resign all the time.

  21. I am of the same opinion as you. A leader who makes sure colleagues know more is doing their job well. To be so arrogant to think that you need to know everything is just well, arrogant!
    My recent post How to set your Christmas table for under $100

  22. Every great leader I’ve known has an “awareness” that surrounds them. Kind of an anti-BS instinct that provides the ability to accurately assess what they encounter and chose the proper resources for the situation. If you are truly adept at leadership you can go into situations you have no experience with and become monumentally successful.

    We’ve all read the stories about a CEO that leaves their field of expertise to take on the challenge of a struggling company in an industry they have no experience in and guides them back to success. That CEO has the ability to “observe and absorb” helping them determine who the “right” people are to have confidence in and where problems are creating roadblocks or annoyances. Roadblocks become priorities and annoyances become changes in culture. Each situation delegated to the lowest possible level, and by that I mean to those nearest to the situation, and monitored for progress.

    That’s my take on what a leader has to know from my own experiences and appreciate everyone who has provide their insight and ideas for all to learn from.

  23. A good leader surrounds him/her self with smart people, and constantly inspires, encourgages,
    rewards and motivates people that are getting the job done.

  24. Catarina,
    I could not agree with you more. I have always thought of it like this; "A leader does not have to know all of the answers. They have to know where to find the answers." Finding the answers could involve co-workers, outside consultants, professional contacts, etc. The last thing I wanted was to be the best at something in my group. I would rather select and develop subordinates that perform their duties better than I could.

  25. As you say, Catarina, leadership is not about knowing more than everyone else, but about knowing enough to bring the experts in their areas together and ensure they work well together to achieve the organisation's goals. It's about leading a team in the true sense of the word.

  26. I believe that a true leader does not really have to know everything
    But he/she must have a vision, dream, easy going person with good manners.
    So his/her Stuff members would enjoy to work and receive tasks from him/her.
    Good leader always listens to his followers and makes good and smart decisions

  27. Good leaders are evolutionary understanding the dynamics of change and the vision to attain the appropriate tools and processes to the current environment.

      1. Sorry for the late reply. No I do not believe leaders need to know everything. It's a collaberative effort relying on the expertise of others within the organizational structure. There is no "I" in team! Effective leaders check their egos at the door and openly communicate with their teams and employees at all levels. Solutions can come from anywhere within the organization and knowing how to use these resources effectively can bring significant results.

  28. Knowing everything isn't necessary; the ability to assimilate information in a rapid and economical way is far more important. This quality has been illustrated historically, think of any leader you may deem "great," or even of the lesser – those who have been motivated more by hubris, or the hubris of others. Both, I suppose, can be found in numerous fields. One might think of Lincoln or Churchill, or Henry Ford or Thomas Edison. Examples abound. But consider the ability to process information quickly so as that it is essentially second nature by the time one is ready to act on it.

  29. A leader cannot command respect only by his leadership qualities. He should be a jack of all trades, (may be, master of none). If a person reaches top leadership position only through a specific functional specialist role, he tends to devote more time to the functions he is familiar/ comfortable with, neglecting giving directions to others

  30. A leader does not need to know details or know everything. A leader is in, my opinion on point — out in front and evaluating and reacting to the horizon or future rather than being tied to the day to day management of operations and cost and profit center details. The leader or leaders should have a sense of P & L and what is going on inside his or her organization as well as be assured that details are managed. In essence a leader is like an orchestra conductor who leads but not need know how to play many of the instruments.

  31. I completely agree that leaders do not need to know everything. However, its a dog-eat-dog world out if leaders surround themselves with people better than them, what qualities must they possess to still be able to maintain the leadership position? In other words, what qualities is an insecure leader lacking??

  32. Catarina,
    The consensus is that a good leader admits that he/she doesn’t know everything.

    Then why are there still so many managers who continue to act this way?

    People telling other people what to do has been the norm since people began working for other people, maybe 3000 years ago. It continued in the traditional organization model that supported the industrial revolution. The manager was the professional and the workers were in off the farm.

    It is only in the last 20 years or so that the situation has begun to shift. The complexity of modern organizations, globalization, the pace of change, the higher education levels of workers and the development of an industry around leadership have combined to alter the way that organizations are managed. Some businesses have a greater need to adjust than others. Just like with new product or service, you have early adapters, middle adapters, late adapters and never adapters,

    People take their lead from their manager. So when the manager thinks he/she knows all the answers, the people do not offer any. This forces the manager to have the answer because no one else is trying to solve the problem. So it is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    If his/her manager exhibits the same behavior, then you have a reinforcing cycle.

    1. Bob, there have also been leaders for thousands of years. In recent years the trend of only looking at short term results came from the US and led to more and more managers being employed. Several US management consultants have told me that they often notice that those managers are afraid of true leaders who are hence not hired, promoted and the first ones to be made redundant. Have noticed the same phenomena all over the world.

  33. What an ambitious thought? and how empowering it would be if the leader has all the ansers.

    But in this creation, however, good, charismatic and intelligent a leader maybe, having all answers is not biologically possible.

    That is why many take a recourse to the new God, the "Google" 🙂

    Best wishes
    Hemantha Pamarthy

  34. A leader needs to know how to LEAD. That implicitely means they are never going to know everything about everything. I always believed in the rule: Hire people who are smarter than you. Hire your successor. Moreover, give people the room they need to get the job done. Set paramenters, define clear, explicit goals, for certain. Then get the hell out of the way. If an employee needs guidance — provided they've thought things through — then you are fulfilling your role as a supervisor. Even more importantly, if an employee needs "air cover" because they've backed into a turf war over an issue, then if they're right you've especially got to step in. But even if they were wrong, as a supervisor you owe it to your people and your department to address the issue, get it cleaned up and move forward. But nobody knows everything and if you don't have the confidence to admit it, then maybe you need to find another job.

  35. I agree with Eric, a leader delegates to trusted competent people in charge of different departments or experts in each field of activity. However he has to know enough of the subject to understand and/or discuss it and being able to approve and sign a decision made with/by his expert or team of experts.

  36. In a fast moving environment, it is impossible for a leader as for anybody to know about everything. The main asset skill of a leader as of a manager is to delegate to other people some competences and expertise, but as "leader", he has to follow the files or the projects he is leading or managing and needs to have regular updates in order to take appropriate decisions or give necessary guidelines. There is more in few heads than in one head. The interactions and feedbacks between team members and leader is essential. A good leader is somebody who have cense of humility and who accepts to learn from everybody.

  37. No, I think a leader needs to be flexible and utilize specialists to his/advantage. No one can or should know everything. I think a leader should be moral, courageous and compasionate while balancing that with analytics, savy, knowledge and the judicious use of power.

  38. Leadership is all about listening, learning from those who know and encouraging those on the team to come forward and make contributions with their knowlegde, know how and skill sets. A great leader focuses on building a team that will add to his effectiveness as manager of the process with the objective of executing the challenges at hand and winning the prize for all.

  39. Sorry I did not see this post and a bit late to the conversation. I absolutely agree that a leader does not have to know everything. If they thought they did then I would be worried.

    Your post reminds me of a story about Henry Ford. I can't find the source so only going from memory. Please corrrect the story if it is wrong. I think it was a court case and someone was saying that he was ignorant because he did not know some kind of detail. His reply was something like he did not need to know the details because he surrounded himself with experts and could call on them in his organisation at any time.

  40. Similarly take an example of the latest event of Barek Obama visiting India, he visited one of the colleges in Mumbai and was answering the questions being posed by the young Indians. He would not know what could be the questions they can be realted to anything, however being a leader his maturity and understanding of the environment and things around the world made him answer the questions with the thoughts.

    In the current corporate world there is no harm if the chariman or the ceo does not know about the indepth of the technologies, the only thing he should be aware of is that where can that technology be used so that he can utilise his best minds towards the betterment of the society and bringing the change. The leader is the one who should be able to judge what is the best way to deal with a situation or crisis and guide his team or followers to safety, by this way the trust and bondage between him and his colleagues or followers would be there permanently.

    1. Good comments Prabhakar that outline different ways people can learn leadership. However, we shouldn't forget that it's not enough to learn leadership. If you are not born with the qualities needed you will never be as good as someone who is.

  41. From the above I would like to showcase two types of leaders, the first ones who learn from the existing corporate worlds from books that have been authored by the great masters and from lot of workshops related to communication and how to become a leader. The second category are the real people who after going through all the tough times in their life and the environment they are brought up, gather the learnings and initiate the thought process of how to bring the change. People would voluntarily follow these kind of leaders.

    As an example Mahatma Gandhi was a very learned man, has studied the subject of Law and saw all the sufferings of the people, the thought process was invoked and he changed his mind, initially no one followed him and later the whole country followed him and then the whole world. Ofcourse the situation or the scenario was different, however one can learn many things from this person and that is where the idea of change should evolve.

  42. First of all thanks to Catarina to raise such a good topic for discussion. I appreciate all the comments posted from various members, two comments posted by Lindsey and Patrick were excellent and gave more insight into the discussion or enlighted the essence of being a leader or a manager.

    In my view a leader need not know everything, however saying that he should have the basic knowledge of what he has to do as there would be many followers who would be waiting very anxiously & patiently for his next move. There are always exceptions for things and in a similar way there are some leaders who with their vast experience and the knowledge gained after visiting lot of places are the real leaders.

  43. A good leader already knows he doesn't know everything, is secure and confident in what he does know, and is smart enough to realize that the best leaders are good at choosing the smartest followers;)

  44. Great post. I think of a leader as someone who can step away from his / her role for perhaps weeks at a time and know that their company is going to be in capable hands and feel at ease about it.

  45. I was thinking about the difference between a leader and a manager. Lindsey above in the comments elucidated this point. A leader is someone who is not afraid to surround themselves with competent people. A strong leader should hire people who are smarter in a variety of areas.


  46. In a management development course I took, we defined a leader who people "willingly and voluntarily follow." If a leader stifles new ideas by say s/he knows everything, soon employees will withdraw from the interaction every leader needs in order to grow the company.

  47. Catarina, As I was reading your article, Ronald Reagan immediately popped into my mind. He was one of the best presidents we ever had. Just as you pointed out, he surrounded himself with experts and listened to them! Being able to listen is a great skill that helps to separate leaders from managers. To be successful, governments and businesses need leaders. Nice post.

  48. A leader has to know enough about each subject he discourses to understand what is being said to allow him to make informed judgments. That's my view and it's how I manage and it seems to work pretty well though I have to spend a considerably large amount of time reading!

  49. We live in a period of unprecedented change. Humanity is in the midst of creating a new civilization. Alvin Toffler describes three waves of civilization. The first wave was agriculture, the second wave industrialization and the third wave is a radically new communication structure and non-industrial wave built on sand (silicon), wire (optical) and air. While the knowledge landscape of previous generations was stable and changed little, knowledge is now doubling three times a decade. Confronted with all this new knowledge, technology and possibilities, the essential strategic question is how to design new structures and organizations that can thrive in the 21st century. Leaders design living organizations as learning community sharing knowledge.

    For previous generations, business and commerce were local in scope and slow to change. The world of commerce we live in today sees change happen instantly and globally. In response to these rapidly changing realities, everyone needs to learn how to be a designer. Design is a way of thinking that is concerned with inventing actions that open new opportunities while anticipating future breakdowns. Everyone within an organization can be empowered to design and make a difference all the time.

    Leadership is a conversation addressing human concerns through coordinating actions with others and inventing new realities and identities within our human community. Phrased another way, this is a matter of inventing anew the games in which we participate. It is a conversation of we versus I, with a vision and mission to build and take care of our future as a community. Leaders read the world, and then sculpt the actions of others in language. They inspire others into new games and plays…. In addition, when masterful, into a new vision of the future.

    To create these new organizations of the future we need to shift the focus of management from objects, things and events to human communication and relationship. Every organization is a network of conversations. An organization starts with a declaration in language and proceeds to a network of commitment: requests and promises between governors and governed, employers and employees, and customers and vendors. No matter where you are, the language you speak is commitment. We need organizational simplicity that can cut deep into the assessment of modern complexity.

    No one knows where we are going and real leadership today embraces uncertainty while caring, feeding and nurturing ethical creativity in the unique narratives of everyone in becoming an essential player in the new game of designing a future together.
    Thanks Catarina

  50. Interesting you bring this up, Catarina – I actually just came across a great article over the last few days about the difference between managers and leaders. Basically, a manager copes with complexity, while a leader copes with change. You can view a good chunk of the article (first published in the late 90s in Harvard Business Review) for free at….

    1. Glad we, and Harvard Business Review, agree Lindsey. Have already read that article. Leadership is a huge subject and because articles on blogs have to be short I just focused on one aspect.

  51. A leader does not need to know everything because effective leaders surround themselves with the right & best people. All a leader needs to know is the big picture and to use the experts that he/she surrounds himself/herself with in achieving set objectives.

  52. I agree, Catarina. Very simplistically put, a leader's role is to know a little about a lot, while the experts know a lot about a little.

    Leadership is about marshalling your forces to achieve the results you need, not doing it all yourself (which is where leaders who know it all often go wrong). It's setting the vision and inspiring everyone to want to achieve it. Alexander's analogy of a leader being like a conductor is a great one!

    Much the same as a country – except that politicians tend to express a vision and then ignore it for expediency and vote-catching once in office. Too few country leaders realise they're running a very large business…

    1. Great points Guy.

      You should have seen the amount of advisers some heads of states and chairman of multinational companies surround themselves with. A whole entourage. You are on your own against ten people or more. A clear illustration of the difference between being a leader and an expert.

  53. A business leader would normally / ideally have a 'T-Profile'. The vertical axis of the T representing the leader's specific field of expertise (background) and the horizontal axis representing her or his broad based (but not necessarily in depth) knowledge about the business itself, the industry, the company, etc..

    Once one understands that it requires a specific quantity of 'I' profiles (subject matter experts) to meet respective targets and objectives, emphasis is being put on a) knowing where which knowledge resides within the organization (departmental and individual), b) the composition of expertise required for a specific objective (thus the importance of the horizontal axis of the 'T') and c) mobilizing existing resources (motivation) and attracting new talent (knowledge gain).

    A leader therefore should rather put up an image / display of being an excellent conductor rather than master of every single instrument within the orchestra…



  54. Hi Catarina,

    Insecurity and arrogance are oftentimes reasons why some leaders don't want to hire anyone who might know more than they do. It is far more advantageous to increase an organization's knowledge base by combining talents and expertise in a team environment for the betterment of all those involved.

    Thanks for sharing your insights!

  55. LOVE the pic! 🙂

    I think there is a happy medium here. I think a leader that truly doesn't know anything about an area will be a detriment. You must know something about each department to lead. However, you shouldn't waste time learning how to do website design or bookkeeping. You should just know enough to be able to intelligently manage.

    It's a little different if you're the head of a country. It gets harder to learn all the different areas you'd need to know. Still, I would hope that the president would know enough to make the decisions he'd need to make and not just trust someone else 100%.

    1. Bet you love the pic!:)

      Obviously a leader has to know the overall picture of all that his company is dealing with. However, you don't need to get into details. The largest corporations in this world for instace has hundreds of thousands of employees. It's almost like running a country.

      Only leaders of small businesses can know more or less everything, or even everything, there is to know about their businesses

      Most heads of states and leaders of multinationals do make their own decisions based on the expert knowledge they listen to. But they can't know everything there is to know about everything – there simply isn't enough time.

      The problem however is that far too many leaders in this world are competing with their staff and wouldn't employ someone who knows more than they do, which is hugely detrimental to the organisation they are running. There are many reasons for that happening. But whatever reason, the fact remains that organisations with leaders like that will lose out heavily.

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