Unknown unknowns

tl;dr: Political and government leadership and the Rumsfeldian model for thinking about what you do-and do not-know.

Not too many of my friends have their own Wikipedia page, but Tevi Troy is one of them.

Tevi is a intellectual of the first degree and the author of several best-selling books, including

Tevi has worked in the White House and at the highest levels of the US government. Naturally, he is a great person help further my studies on strategy.

So, I asked him “which US President was the most strategic?”

Without hesitation, he answered “Nixon.”

Then, I asked him, since I’ve been re-reading Peter Drucker‘s The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done, “which President was the most effective leader?”

At first, he said “Reagan,” but then I asked for something less modern.

His answer: “James K. Polk.

According to Tevi, Polk stated 3 objectives at the beginning of his term (‘manifest destiny‘ being one of them) and accomplished all of them in one term.

Then, Polk walked away. He didn’t run for re-election and served one term only. He had done what he had set out to do.

In short, he was effective.

Executives in Government

The conversation with Tevi expanded beyond Presidents and eventually migrated its way to Donald Rumsfeld.

Rumsfeld has nearly done it all. He was both the youngest and the 2nd oldest-ever Secretary of Defense, a White House Chief of Staff, a congressman, and the CEO of major companies.

So, either Rumsfeld is really good at fooling people about his competence (and there are definitely those who think that) or he is a really effective executive.

One of Rumsfeld’s more known habits as the creation of “snowflakes.” These were very short memos that he would send out at a blistering pace and the Pentagon termed them “snowflakes” because they would create a blizzard of paper as people scrambled to respond to them.

In some respect, they come off as a bit strange, such as the one asking for faster food service

or the one that was 7 days after the 9/11 attacks about his desire to sit for interviews.

At the same time, this could be an example of what Sun Tzu calls “a master of the insubstantial.”

But focusing on these “snowflakes” alone does a disservice to part of his foundational approach to grand strategy.

The 4 (un)Knowns

If you can find it (it’s off Netflix now), see if you can watch the movie “The Unknown Known”.

In it, we are introduced to the 4 quadrants of Rumsfeldian knowledge.

  • Known knowns – things you know you know
    (there is a novel coronavirus)
  • Known unknowns- things you know you don’t know
    (when will there be a vaccine for covid-19?)
  • Unknown knowns– things you think you know, but you actually don’t
    (that there are WMDs in Iraq)
  • Unknown unknowns– things you don’t even know you don’t know.
    (that while you were busy doing something else, George Floyd had just died in Minneapolis, and that this would upend the country)

It is the mere awareness of the existence of the last two that I think is critical to Rumsfeld’s effectiveness as an executive.

Many executives, politicians, and the rest of us are comfortable with the “knowns.”

How often do we think about the “unknowns?”

Acknowledging the Unknowns

I’ve used the term “high VUCA” environment more than once recently.

VUCA is Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. Given all that we have dealt with in the past 3 months and our universal desire for tranquility and harmony, I am starting to focus less on the knowns and more about generating an awareness for the existence of the unknowns.

Knowing that you don’t even know what you don’t know may, at first, seem daunting and intimidating. It may make you feel vulnerable.

But I suspect that there’s a placidity that comes from this acceptance of reality as it stands.

I think of these 4 (un)knowns as a type of meditative practice. Naturally, we’re going to be off on the 3rd and 4th ones above…and that’s the point. Just knowing that encourages humility and diversifies thinking.

Perhaps that’s one of the keys to executive effectiveness.

The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing. - Socrates

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