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Leaders: This Mindset Shift Can Make All the Difference

Are you a knower or a learner? Conscious leaders share this quality.
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As leaders, we often have the privilege to work alongside the most intelligent, resourceful, and creative people in our organizations. You might praise someone like this for their ability to see challenges as opportunities. Or perhaps you know which individuals are important to involve when you need to synthesize several ideas to reach a desired outcome.

Yet over the course of my career, I’ve encountered several individuals in leadership who don’t respond well to these out-of-the-box thinkers. When a new or interesting idea is presented—especially if it runs counter to the existing plan—they get frustrated, act threatened, or even insult the intelligence of other contributors.

This way of thinking is referred to as the knower mindset. It’s as if this individual is saying to their teams (and themselves), “My ideas are the best and most competent. Others do not have this expertise.”

One the one hand, it makes sense—we are rewarded for becoming SMEs and confidently demonstrating that expertise. But on the other hand, we risk compromising our goals when we assume we always know what’s best.

Being a Knower vs. a Learner

In Conscious Business, Fred Kofman distinguishes between two groups: “knowers” and “learners.”

Kofman asserts that knowers stake their self-esteem on always being right (or at least convincing others that they are), while learners stay open to possibilities and seek the best ideas for tough challenges. Knowers circumscribe their thinking to what they believe they know, while learners see no boundaries and strive to consider all the possibilities.

Knowers also tend to see intelligence and capability as fixed quantities. In the knower’s view, you’re either born intelligent and capable or you’re not. You’re stuck with what you’ve got, with no room for growth one way or the other.

Learners actively seek to understand and be understood, and they’re open to different opinions. To a learner, there’s always an opportunity to gain new wisdom and shift perspective.

The Knower Mindset

Have you ever continued to argue your point even after you realized you were wrong? Maybe you’ve felt like you were losing an argument and began to stretch the facts to strengthen your position. Or perhaps you’re prone to tuning the other person out while you’re preparing your counterargument or your next point.

The best leaders I’ve encountered abhor the knower mindset, so it’s certainly worth learning what it is so you can avoid it! Drawing on Kofman’s framework, the Stagen Leadership Academy describes knower behavior this way:

  1. Knowers believe intelligence and capability can’t increase, and effort does little to improve them.

  2. Knowers deny their learning gaps, so they’re closed to new ideas and approaches.

  3. Knowers place little value on feedback, especially if it’s inconsistent with their perspective.

  4. Knowers are preoccupied with appearing competent. They get defensive when others question their performance.

  5. Knowers see mistakes and setbacks as failures or proof of inability, and thus miss learning from them.

The Learner Mindset

Learners, as described by Stagen Leadership Academy, behave much more resourcefully.

  1. Learners believe intelligence and capability are fluid, and improve upon them through effort.

  2. Learners see learning gaps as fundamental and work hard to close them with new ideas and approaches.

  3. Learners consider feedback invaluable. They actively seek it, especially from those whose perspectives are different than their own.

  4. Learners believe incompetence is a temporary state. They acknowledge their incompetence, embracing it as an opportunity to learn and improve.

  5. Learners consider that mistakes and setbacks are inevitable. They see them as confirmation of effort, and they persist in the face of frustration.

Consider your own mindset—what’s your first reaction when your competency or views are challenged? How you do respond when faced with mistakes or setbacks? As you reflect, ask yourself what it looks like to genuinely adopt a mindset of curiosity and mutual learning. You might consider any situations where you feel you may have taken on the knower mindset. Were there any repercussions? What would happen if you adopted the learner mindset instead. Mindset shifts don’t happen overnight, but through small, intentional steps we’ll shift the way we respond—and hopefully encourage a culture of mutual learning within our teams.


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