I think therefore I know.

Over the past few weeks I’ve had the great pleasure of sitting in quite a few business meetings—though I’m typically engaged, as the hours rolled on in one particularly long meeting I decided to take a backseat and observe. After a short while I noticed something interesting: “I think” making its way into the discussion with surprising frequency. At first I took it to be some sort of vocal tick, or perhaps some form of verbal mimicry, unconscious maybe. But after awhile I realized only a select few had embraced “I think” to the fullest. As I surveyed the room I began to take a notes—jotting down who said “I think” and how often. After two hours I tallied the results. “I think” was used 73 times, 55 times by the same two people.

Completely related, a year or so ago I sat on a press call with an expert resource who was new to media relations; I do this often as a way to gauge general expertise, subject knowledge, charisma, etc. My feedback was minimal. But one thing stood out—when asked a question, 99% of the time the resources’ response began with “I think.” For me this is an indication of uncertainty. Because if you “think” you must not “know.” And “knowing” is the very important difference between an expert and an amateur.  No judgment. Just fact.

In this recent meeting I had the same sense of uncertainty—“I think” wasn’t being used as typical filler such as “um” and “uh”, or as a pragmatic expression in the way “you know” is commonly used.  “I think” was being used as a linguistic hedging device. Beyond general tone, this fact was evident when considering who embraced the phrase. The meeting was high level, senior managers and leaders. And the two people using it were senior, but with the least professional experience of the bunch.

As I tallied “I thinks” I also made special note of who never used it—there was only one person, the most experienced person in the room. Others used it sporadically, most often to mitigate statements that could be considered unkind. Understandably.

Connecting the dots back to business: this is a great insight into leadership. Not long ago I wrote a post about doing work and about people these days feeling entitled to lead, sometimes before ever rolling up their sleeves. There’s an incredibly strong tie here. It’s through doing work and gaining experience through the process that you come to “know”.  In the early stages of our careers we often fail, hopefully trying again to succeed. We have mentors and colleagues who show us the ropes, forgive our mistakes and teach us to move forward. We repeat those important steps in different companies, with different clients, and in different contexts. These are the building blocks of leadership, and in many cases today that foundation is never built before people either push or luck their way to the top. Get in early and you simply start at the top. Stay at the same place long enough and you’ll work your way to the top, but without much perspective.

Leadership is kind of a funny thing, most people want it for themselves, but not everyone knows what it is or what to do with it. To be a leader is to be lucid in times of confusion, strong when others are weak, and confident in the face of uncertainty. To be a leader is to know. And there is no way to push or luck your way into knowing.