Lead by admitting you don’t know

Issued: Fri, 30 Jun 2017 10:38:00 BST

Helen Minnis delvered a talk at TEDxGlasgow titled 

Lead by admitting that you don't know!

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” – Mark Twain. 

Helen has been thinking about this statement, as she runs a randomised controlled trial (RCT) of a treatment for families who have abused or neglected their children. Judges struggle on a daily basis with momentous decisions about these children’s futures: send them home risking further abuse, or recommend adoption and sever family bonds? Science has not provided them with any evidence upon which to base these life-or-death decisions. Can you imagine if doctors simply guessed which drugs to give their patients, not knowing if they will poison or cure?

Helen will explain that RCTs are a bit magic: tossing a coin irons out all complexities, allowing you to study your treatment alone. RCTs are a great way to lead by accepting that you just don’t know for sure – but that you plan to find out.

Expecting one person to hold all the knowledge makes their decisions impossible. 
This talk will suggest that a true leader is someone who follows their nose, accepts uncertainty and stays curious. It is believing we know the answer that makes us blind.

Helen is Scotland’s only Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and one of fewer than 20 black female Professors in the UK.

Curiosity led her into science after spending a year working as an orphanage doctor in Guatemala, before training in psychiatry. The children in the orphanage, who had experienced severe abuse and neglect, had very unusual social behaviour – now called “Attachment Disorders”. This Attachment Disorder behaviour – an over-friendliness with strangers or severe social withdrawal – put them at risk of further abuse and neglect. Helen has spent her subsequent career trying to find out why many abused and neglected children have Attachment Disorders and how to help them. 

Helen enjoys charting new territories and getting surprises. Most recently, she has been running a large randomised controlled trial of a specialist mental health service for pre-school children coming into foster care due to abuse and neglect. This has underlined to her just how little we know. One of the biggest surprises she has come across is that many people think we understand a lot more than we actually do, which presents a challenge in itself.


This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at https://www.ted.com/tedx


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