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Why Knowledge Is Not Power

That’s right folks. Everything you’ve heard about knowledge being “power,” is obsolete. Irrelevant. Yesterday’s news. Horseshit.


Sure, knowledge is powerful but it’s not power. Here’s why.


Knowledge Is Not Power

I am so sick of people making the tireless observation that we live in a fast paced, volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous world.


No. Shit.


You know what? Every generation has been saying this since the dawn of time.


Prior to the invention of the wheel, for example, cavemen were running around like crazy scavenging for food. You think that wasn’t fast paced, volatile, uncertain, complex, or ambiguous?


And then, once that miracle of an invention was discovered and they (the cavemen) saw that it could roll, they realize that they no longer had to carry big heavy objects. They could instead…roll them. Hold the phone!


And that’s when shit got real—it got a little faster, a little more complex (all the neighbors got wheels too) and a lot more ambiguous (“when does this wheel-thing stop rolling?!”).


The point is, chaos, change and adaptability are nothing new. They must exist and, even more, they must co-exist, because you can’t have change without newness and you can’t move from old to new or new to old without change, and doing so requires adaptability.


Did I just blow your mind or what? (Sniff)


Okay, so we’ve (re) established that the competitive environment is, well, competitive. That’s not news.


But this might be…


Me < We

Remember the days when companies were structured like this:

Oh wait, they still are.


The problem with this separation—between “corporate” and “everybody else” is this: “doers” don’t have the strategic context because “thinkers” 1) don’t share it and 2) don’t reinforce it, and “thinkers” lack real-time context because they’re so far removed from the “front lines.” What this means is that the company, in this case, can’t adapt to the right change and can’t adapt to change right. It moves too slow and is on par to becoming irrelevant.


The thing is, this was the EXACT SAME challenge we faced in the special operations community. Think of it this way: a soldier on the ground would see a threat on the ground. He would then have to send a request up the chain of command, wait for a decision to be made and then sent back “down” again before he could act on that threat, whereas all al Qaeda (the enemy/competitor) had to do was make a phone call.


The competition was nimble, we were not.


The competition could communicate faster, we could not.


The competition could make decisions based on real time context quicker, we could not.


Yet in the end, we learned something that allowed us to adapt. We learned that how we saw the problem was the problem. We saw the competition—in this case, al Qaeda—as we saw ourselves: as a neatly woven hierarchy with clear reporting channels that mimicked the typical company org chart.


And it’s likely the same problem that you and the leaders of your company face today.


The Trouble with “Knowledge Is Power”

Look, I get it. You work in an environment where trust is low, where people protect their own turf, stay in their lanes and avoid oncoming “traffic,” and you think that “well, if I share what I know then I’ll just be out of a job because somebody will do it better than me.”


That’s not a knowledge issue, folks, that’s a self-confidence issue.


The “win” that comes out of sharing information (which I’m using synonymously with “knowledge” here) is that you free up yourself to act on what you and only you can affect (influence) and effect (change or control). You get your time back.


That is a win and that’s how you optimize at scale.


Let me pose this question: How many times today or this week have you made a decision that somebody else one, two or even three levels below you could’ve made? If the answer is greater than one, then you’re not working optimally, which means neither is your company.


Knowledge Demands Context

Now, sharing knowledge in itself isn’t good enough. After all, I could recite the Encyclopedia to you but without a clear understanding as to why knowing all that crap is important then you’re likely to either:

A) Roll your eyes

B) Nod your head while thinking of happy hour, or

C) Introduce me to this new thing on the internets machine called Wikipedia which is far easier and faster to access


But, if I were to say, “Hey, we’re going to use the Encyclopedia to teach children how to alphabetize,” then you have context and you—hopefully—understand why we’re using a hard copy versus the online version.


And this leads me to another important point when sharing knowledge: context.


Context Creates Meaning

Without context, without a clear finish line that defines success then it doesn’t matter which road you take. But, with a clear definition of success, now you have guidance. You have boundaries and parameters to stay within which informs your decision making. Without context, there is no meaning as you can choose to interpret “success” any way you want.


There’s another reason why context—shared context—is important: it mitigates individual interpretation. Here’s what I mean…


Sharing = Interpreting (And In Real Time)

During the global war on terror, we had a 90-minute meeting every day of up to 8,000 participants globally. That’s right, there were a shit ton of people on this video teleconference. But the point of it was multifold:


1. Share context. When people in Iraq knew what people in Afghanistan were doing, for example, it allowed them to plan and anticipate resources (among other things) they might/might not have.

2. Mitigate misinterpretation. The problem with simply “sharing information” is that it gets watered down the farther it travels from the source. People assign their own meanings and their own biases—sometimes intentionally, sometimes not—and the original intent morphs into something different. Not so with this global monstrosity of a meeting. We heard—right from the “horse’s mouth”—what was important, why and what our next steps would be as an organization. This way, people couldn’t “misinterpret” strategic direction or put their own spin on things. We had clarity of direction and it was inarguable, which allowed us to formulate our own plans. This is a key concept in enabling decision making at the most effective levels (as opposed to the “lowest”).

3. Build trust. Social exchange theory (yes, this is me putting on my “nerd hat.” Sniff.) states that the more often you interact the more transactions take place, and the more social transactions (i.e. exchanges) the more trust is built. By having a global meeting every day, we were able to build relationships with people and counterparts that we might never have had otherwise. We could also personalize resources more effectively because we could see the person on the other end, which, in turn, built greater trust.


There’s a lot more to this global meeting than what I’m sharing here, but hopefully you get an idea about the critical role it played in this whole knowledge is not power “thing.” If you don’t, let me know.


Decision Making at The Top

The other challenge with hoarding information at the top is this: it’s arrogant and just downright ineffective. It’s arrogant to think that just because you’re a “leader” that you know everything there is to know about the company and its people. It’s ineffective because change happens so fast today that in order to sustain competitive advantage, “doers” must be equipped with their own decision making power, and that comes from being equipped with the right information to make important decisions in the context of the company’s defined mission.


That’s why separating thinkers and doers is outdated. Here’s what the organizational paradigm should look like:

Now thinkers can do and doers can think because they operate off the same sheet of music.


Now the company can adapt to change far faster than before.


Now people operate with purpose, autonomy and mastery that supports Daniel Pink’s research on Motivation 2.0.


And now leaders get their time back; leaders can now focus on what they and only they can affect/effect, which places the company in a better value position.


Knowledge is not power folks. Knowledge is powerful, but sharing knowledge is the true source of power.

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