Unknown unknowns ~ plausible deniability

Donald Rumsfeld passed away on 29th June 2021. I wrote this piece on 2nd July 2021. I chose not to join the cliché caterwauling and pithy rehashing on social media at the time. Tempted as I was. This seems a less crass moment to let this one loose. Risk and leadership sentiments co-exist here. As does what it is to be a leader, rather than simply own the title and have authority.

Donald Rumsfeld, born 9th July 1932, ended up owning “unknown unknowns” but he did not invent the term. He just showed a generation of leaders how to make it work for them. With this rediscovered slight-of-hand, our leaders now have new language to disown information gaps with ever greater ease. I argue elsewhere that it is for all of us to demand they take back this accountability, but starting with some more wholesome demands of ourselves.

Not allowing any of us to be excused. Excused when failing to comprehend how we are served, and how we ask to be lead. Life is uncertain. I argue we are all here as agents of time-bound intended change. There is reason to think we can never know all, and therefore we progress with an imperfect crystal ball. We live with risk. Unlike other animals we have means to manage it, make effort to account for it, not just react to it. We also have more means to create it from reasons unknown. In shared effort therefore, leadership is about accepting uncertainty, and being accountable for the management of unknown risk anyway.

Lucky Generals or good ones

Let me add a little historical perspective a moment. Donald Rumsfeld was many things. I would say one of those things is lucky. Not as Napoleon would have his generals but more in what deed his tombstone seems destined to have him best known. His hawkish leadership of US defence framed a career. 1975-1977 under Gerald Ford. 2001-2006 under GW Bush. That’s thirty years of adult learning. Thirty years of influence in the complexity of control and command. There are many leaders with less experience who more quickly understood their decision-making comes face-to-face with unknown unknowns. Yet that is the posthumous headline he now owns.

Great wisdoms and cliché I present more squarely toward other people’s insights. He just happened to wear the phrase at a momentous point of history. He was openly mocked. Then in time the notion he spoke was given new air. And with it better understanding, perspective, and now a societal acceptance anew. The are always unknown unknowns. What stuck to Rumsfeld is a classic tipping point in action. He had Bandwidth. Connectivity. Relevance. Which in time is heard with resonance. And ultimately realisation. He became the inadvertent agency of this truth. The catalyst to transmission and with it a change.

Excuse me

We now have shared awareness and acceptance of unknown unknowns. But what is less clear to me is our collective understanding of that truth. If anything, it has become a transmission of a new excuse. To the decision-maker wannabes who feed upon statements like “how were we supposed to know that?”. The furtherance of career self-defence. An enabler to park tough decisions. Or defer to “the science” to ensure leadership is offered without risk of blame.

This is isn’t about you, it’s all about you

So says a man who knows what it is to be a leader. So all you wannabes of power out there. Be careful what you wish for. Because we’re learning. Soon we’ll be measuring. And then accountability will be coming back, ready or not.

We know you do not know. Yet we still expect you to serve us in your leadership. There is no delegation of blame.

Leaders must know that unknown…