When leaders suffer from the curse of knowledge

Dennis Sparks

I sometimes suffer from the curse of knowledge. I also suffer from the impostor syndrome (more about that tomorrow).

(Based on those two observations you probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that I also suffer from medical student syndrome, which causes me to believe that I have every illness I read about.)

For the moment, however, I’d like to focus on the challenges posed by knowing too much—otherwise known as “the curse of knowledge,” a term I am borrowing from Chip and Dan Heath’s book, Made to Stick.

The curse of knowledge is a problem that often besets those who possess deep understanding of a subject – researchers, consultants, and even school leaders, among others.

The problem, though, isn’t the amount of knowledge one possesses, but rather our inability to communicate clearly what we know.

For example, some of the worst teaching I’ve experienced was in advanced graduate courses taught by scholars with deep knowledge of their subject matter. There was no doubt they knew the material. They had literally written the book. But they were unable to structure and explain what they knew in accessible ways.

The curse of knowledge can make it difficult for those who possess it to understand a beginner’s mind. It can make it difficult to distinguish what is central from that which is peripheral and to speak concretely rather than abstractly.

Because communicating clearly and concisely with others is an essential leadership skill, it’s important that principals and teacher leaders are aware of and address the curse of knowledge as it infects their work.

Here are a few things that school leaders can do:

1. Spend a few minutes writing about what you would like to communicate, separating what is primary from that which is of secondary importance. Engage in conversations to help you further develop your clarity.

2. Hone in on a big idea or two. Organize two or three subordinate points around each big idea. Polish each of those points to proverb-like compactness.

3. Provide concrete examples and/or offer stories to illustrate those points.

In a recent blog post, Ann Murphy Paul uses the term “curse of expertise” to discuss the same phenomenon and offers some suggestions for addressing it.

Question: In what areas do you or others on your leadership team experience the curse of knowledge? What have you done or could you do to address it to enable you to communicate or teach more effectively?

2 Responses to “When leaders suffer from the curse of knowledge”


  1. 1 Jim Knight January 30, 2013 at 8:31 am

    Very interesting. I’ve been reading the Art of Explanation by Lee LeFever his point is that the antidote to the curse of knowledge is empathy. If we truly understand the people we are communicating with, we are compelled to be clear. I was just thinking about this this week, so I it was interesting to see you column.

  2. 2 Dennis Sparks January 30, 2013 at 9:08 am

    Thanks, Jim, for reminding us about the importance of empathy in addressing the curse of knowledge. Empathy seems to be an all-purpose leadership tool – it deepens and strengthens relationships, improves communication, and enriches our lives as we come to view the world through the eyes of others.


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