Closing the Knowing-Doing Gap to Become a Better Leader

knowing doing gap

An average strategy well executed will always outperform a superior business strategy which is poorly executed. 

As sales leaders, we are inspired by leadership books, seminars, and articles, but when it comes to translating that inspiration into new behaviors, we often hit a roadblock. 

Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton, professors of organizational behavior at Stanford, explore this performance paradox in The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action. Written in the late 90’s, this book remains as relevant as ever today, providing actionable strategies to close the “gap” and align thinking and action. 

Increase Self-Awareness to Identify Your Area of Gap 

As leaders, we’re experts on our business, products, and industry, but we tend to be weaker on knowing and understanding our people—and weaker still on knowing ourselves. 

Ineffective leaders are often unaware of their flaws. That’s not to say they’re not knowledgeable on the things they should be doing, but it’s common to unknowingly lapse into old behaviors even when we know what the right thing to do is. The key is becoming aware of when this happens, which means taking a step back to have a close look at our own performance and seeking candid feedback from those around us. 

Most of us have a good understanding of leadership best practices. By asking ourselves and others “how important is this best practice to the success of our organization, and how well am I doing it?” you can gain insight into your unique “knowing-doing gap.” 

Find the gap, and then you can focus on addressing it. 

Learn to Value Simplicity 

Many leaders feel that in order to stand out and gain a competitive advantage, they must develop and execute only the most innovative ideas that have not already been implemented in the market. The trouble with this line of thinking is that what is difficult to be imagined and imitated is also difficult to implement. A great idea is nothing if it is not implemented (and implemented effectively). Action counts more than elegant plans and concepts. 

A solid plan that can realistically be executed with precision by your team is what you should aim for. Leaders who embody this principle best are those that regularly work side-by-side with their people. It’s easy to draft up a complex vision from the boardroom, but when you’re aware of the tactical steps that are required to bring it to life, you’re better at staying grounded and creating an executable plan.  

Take Action, and Don’t Be Afraid to Make a Few Mistakes 

Knowing comes from doing (and making a few mistakes along the way). Not every piece of information that you glean from a leadership book or course will be applicable in your unique environment—and there’s not enough time in the world to test them all. But part of being a successful leader is recognizing which bits of advice apply best to your situation, and being bold enough to go forward with a plan. By trying a lot of things, you will learn what works, what doesn’t, and what can be changed the next time around. 

The first principle offered by Pfeffer and Sutton is to embed more of the process of acquiring new knowledge in the actual doing of the task—acquiring knowledge through practice, performance, and even failure. 

Many leaders think that just making a decision will be enough for it to be implemented, or they spend a disproportionate amount of time planning and reviewing, resulting in analysis paralysis. Planning and strategy is important, but putting an idea into action is more important. 

We all know that we need to be doing certain things—whether it’s eating healthier, exercising more, or leading in ways that drive growth in our organizations. But just having that knowledge isn’t enough—if something is important enough to invest time in learning, it deserves your action in executing. As leaders, let’s continue to learn while being intentional about closing the gap between knowing and doing, and turning that knowledge into tangible results.


Josh Winters

Josh Winters is a Group Vice President/Director of Sales at The Brooks Group, where he serves as the first point-of-contact for organizational stakeholders looking to improve their teams’ sales effectiveness and overall talent management.

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