Leadership lessons from Confucius: dumb questions

dumb questions

Confucius said: “Zilu, let me tell you what knowledge means. Knowing what you know and what you don’t know. That is what knowledge means.”

It can be very tempting to pretend that you understand what someone is droning on about during a meeting or presentation out of fear of looking stupid in front of everyone else. Tempting but stupid, because the likelihood is that if you don’t have the foggiest idea of what the person is talking about then most of the other people in the room don’t either!

As a leader, it’s your job to create an atmosphere in which people feel free to ask what might at first sight appear to be dumb questions without feeling embarrassed or afraid of what other people’s reactions might be. Once everyone begins to open up, you’ll quickly learn what communication and knowledge gaps need to be addressed among your team and the improvements that need to be made in how information is presented and shared amongst everyone.

It’s important to remember that meetings are not an intelligence test. The purpose of holding them is to convey and share information. If even one person leaves not having understand what was discussed, then the meeting should be counted as a failure.

How many people do you know like Zilu, who Confucius gently chides in this passage for pretending to know more than he actually does? More important, how do you make it easier for them to be more candid in the future?

You might want to start by asking more dumb questions yourself the next time you attend a meeting.


This article features a translation of Chapter 17 of Book 2 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 2 here.

Another image of the Temple of Yan Hui in Qufu. You can read more about it here.

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