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Sustained high performance is difficult, and rare. Such performance requires corporate leadership to develop sensitivity to subtle, often ambivalent, signals of change, opportunity, and danger well before performance falters. Hindsight is everything but 20-20. When executives ask me “What went wrong?” my answer is often “it is not what went wrong, but when you recognized things were going wrong.”
In late 1941 Churchill failed to see how vulnerable Singapore was to attack from a Japanese land invasion. Churchill took the fall of Singapore, the “worst disaster” in British history, personally. He vowed to learn from it. After Singapore’s collapse he promised his leadership would be shaped by four questions: “What don’t I know? Why am I not being told? Why don’t I ask? Why don’t I tell what I know?”
These four remarkably simple questions epitomize a leadership stance that is mindful of ignorance as well as of knowledge. These questions bring awareness to the fact that what you don’t know— and when you realize what you don’t know — often hurts you. They also bring the realization that leadership depends on when as much as on what.