In my prior life, I worked for an international management consulting firm. We helped clients craft their strategies, aided in their marketing plans, and assisted in merger and acquisition activities. Some of my work involved making presentations of research and recommendations to corporate clients in the upper echelons of management. Before sending me out to do battle before executives and leaders, I got careful training from wise leaders in the firm in a simple phrase: “I don't know.” My coaches taught me to use that phrase whenever I did not know the answer. I learned to use that phrase to communicate confidence in what I did know and wisdom to be clear on the things I did not know. Most importantly, those less-traveled words (I don't know) protected the firm's reputation from damage done by careless remarks or half-thought statements.
Powerful words, those: I do not know. Important when presenting data upon which key decisions will be made. Crucial when answering questions when one is not clear on the answer. Vital when one is leading and followers are depending on you. The words communicate limits, honesty, even humility. To say, “ I don't know,” is to communicate that, well, one does not actually know.
Unfortunately, President Obama appears not to have received the same training I did. One would expect a former law school professor to be very familiar with the words, “I don't know.” After all, the law and its adjudication is built on precision, the President of the United States' pronouncements even moreso.
I watched in disbelief as the President of the United States of America, a leadership position if ever there were one, responded stupidly to a reporter's question at the end of his health care “press conference.” Ben Smith has already rightly noted that, when Lynn Sweet asked President Obama about the now-infamous arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Mr. Obama “went small.” The President admitted that he knew not all the facts but proceeded to dive headfirst into the matter anyway, offering opinion and commentary, while remarking that the police officers “acted stupidly.”