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Can Naïveté Be a Leadership Strength?


Photo by Lubo Minar on Unsplash


By Lauren Mastbaum

Picture the stereotypical successful business leader: What are the consistent traits she exhibits? By and large, she seems to possess all the answers — a person who understands exactly how her company ticks, along with the ins and outs of her industry. Knowing the rules must be an essential factor in becoming successful, then. But what if a sense of naïveté offered strength as well?

This illuminating thought was discussed at AMA New York’s latest edition of its Women in Marketing series, “Take Your Seat at the Table: Leadership Strategies for the New Decade.” Hosted by Young Mi Park, adjunct lecturer at Columbia University and Rutgers Business School, the hour-long session showcased Sarah Aitken, CMO at Holler and trailblazing marketing professional who isn’t afraid to not know everything. True to her courageous spirit, Sarah opened up on how naïveté can serve you:

  1. You never know where you’ll find work. Following the straight and narrow path of attending business conferences and connecting with companies online can certainly get you noticed. If you’re not familiar with the customary ways of networking, though, it’s still possible to encounter your next lead under completely unrelated circumstances, even as far removed as vacation. While on a college break traveling by boat in Turkey, Sarah met her first boss, who offered her employment at a PR agency. “I just jumped at the chance,” she recalled. “I finished my last exam in June and walked straight into a job in London.”
  2. Be open to what may excite you. Once you’ve nailed down a particular role or industry sector, don’t feel you need to stay put just because it’s what you’ve already shown competence in. Pay attention to what piques your interest so you can follow your true purpose, which you may not be able to pinpoint until you get a taste for it. After helping clients with branding, Sarah ultimately left her first job to chase this new passion. “PR was a little bit too salesy and didn’t feel right to me. It wasn’t the part of my job I was excited about. The pieces I started to get more and more interested in were the website development, the creative side.”
  3. Ignorance can be bliss — and effective. Yes, hotshots who master insider playbooks will likely build good business. But the awareness of standards can also be intimidating, keeping you from thinking outside the box. Fortunately, when Sarah moved to Manhattan, she was oblivious to the city’s pitch process. “Quite honestly, not knowing how the New York marketing and advertising scene worked was great in a way, because I think if I had known any of that at the time, I wouldn’t have been so bold.” Her approach? Offer the biggest of ideas to prospective clients, win the business, and then sort out the details later.
  4. Lean into what makes you uncomfortable. Having only broad outlines of how to create solutions you’ve already promised to clients is nothing short of uncomfortable. While this level of naïveté might be risky, the opportunity for growth, change, and mentorship is priceless. It’s possible you won’t fully have confidence in yourself, and that’s where a trusted coach can see your potential before you do. As Sarah once said to her mentor when he suggested she run a company, “If you think I can do it, maybe I can do it.” Listening to how people perceive you is vital for forming self-assurance in your leadership.

Indeed, navigating the work world with a sprinkle of naïveté can be beneficial, but you should always strive to comprehend your own abilities. Sarah reminded the audience, “The only thing you’re truly in control of is yourself: Your words, your actions, and thinking about how that impacts other people in the context of what you want to achieve.”

Lauren Mastbaum is a content manager at Red Ventures with a background in digital marketing. Since 2020, she has volunteered with AMA New York as an editor. You can connect with Lauren on LinkedIn.