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The power in being wrong for business leaders

by Stephen Bates on 17 Oct 2016

business_leadersThere is power in being wrong. It seems a strange thing to say, doesn't it? However, there is huge power - and huge benefits to gain – for business leaders in being wrong.

I want you to think of being wrong as both an attitude and a skill. The skill is the ability to recognise that you have made a mistake or are about to make one. The attitude side of things comes into play in how you deal with this knowledge.

One of the most common things I hear when I am working, is the cry that the leader, when making a particular decision, either did not consult on it or ignored the advice given to them. Almost as frequent is the complaint that they did not change course even when supporting evidence was very strong.

We want leaders who will map out a vision and have the courage and confidence to act on it, but, and this is the big but, will they also allow themselves to change their minds when needed?

This is why being wrong is both a skill and an attitude. The skill is in seeing that something needs to be changed and the attitude is the willingness to change it, especially in the full glare of public judgement. It takes a strong leader to stick their neck out, but it takes an even stronger one to stand up and change their mind.

The role of ego

Flexibility is the key to real control. The more options and solutions you have, the better the chance of success - but ego is one of the biggest killers of creating these options. We think we are right and don't want to let this go – therefore, we shut down our willingness to see what other options are available to us.

I dance Argentine tango and I know of, let us say, an "important man", whom the very moment he is asked to do something in class he doesn't want to do, will sit down and refuse to take part. Not only that, he will vocally recruit allies from the class to join him in his position. He, of course, is worried that he can't do the new task and will do almost anything to make sure he does not fail. He makes himself look extremely silly to other class members but some do follow him. He is charismatic, determined and his arguments can sound plausible at their first hearing but they don't really stack up - however, this does not matter. He does not want to be seen to get things wrong. The need to defend his ego not only shuts down his learning but damages the class and threatens the authority of the teacher.

This real life example is easily transferable into the business world. Indeed, I doubt this behaviour only occurs in his tango class. He is probably even worse in his own organisation because he has the authority of his position. If he is prepared to argue with the teacher in public on a subject where everyone knows that he is not the expert, you can only imagine what he is like in his own organisation.

The tango students roll their eyes once he starts but they know they will get on with their lesson soon enough. But in the business world good and expensive people leave organisations because of this sort of behaviour. The very desire to show people that you are right is one of the fastest ways of losing respect from people around you.

I'm sure that this man is smart enough to understand that the teacher is the person he should be listening to. This is the skill part - but what about the attitude element?

This attitude is essential to deal with the speed of change in business that we are experiencing. Agile business in a world of change and disruption is a big theme at the moment. The ability for a business to be able to respond swiftly to changes, threats and opportunities has never been so important and this is where the strength of the leader is paramount. The leader who won't say they were wrong and who won't change their minds quickly when needed will put their business in a very dangerous position.

The leader that shows that it's okay to say "I was wrong in my previous decision" will not only be able to quickly guide their business in a new direction, but also build an effective culture too. They will demonstrate that it is okay for other leaders and managers to take advice and act on this from anywhere in the business at whatever level it comes from.

The other massively valuable benefit is that people in the organisation will happily bring their ideas to the attention of their line managers and other leaders. They don't fear being shot down when they are just trying to help. This benefit is often overlooked but imagine an organisation where people can speak their mind freely and positively.

Ego is a powerful thing and business leaders need to have enough ego to want to take the big decisions. But when defending their ego is more important than getting the result trouble is around the corner.

Here are some of behaviours that I have observed in business leaders trying to hold onto their self-esteem. Do you recognise any?

Scapegoating

Blaming someone else is an easy thing to do so they don't have to be wrong.

Selective listening

Only hearing what they want to hear to justify their point of view. This is often followed by scapegoating - blaming someone else that they were not told about something when, in fact, they were.

Being the Legend

The Legend is a leader, whom at some point in the past, got something spectacularly right. They will be an even bigger Legend if they did this when others were not in agreement with them. They took the risk and it paid off - but now they think they are the only one who can see into the future and be right.

I'm smarter than you

Being the smartest one in the room is a strong driver for any leader who does not like to be wrong. Leaders who gained success and position from having more knowledge than others get caught out by this as they no longer have all the most up to date information, but still think they do.

Procrastination by constant planning

Never making or changing a decision by continually thinking about the decision that needs to be made. If you put it off by looking like you are working on it, you can't be wrong.

Not in public

The not in public mindset is a massive factor in leaders not backing down. Being shown that we need to change our minds behind closed doors is one thing but being shown up in public is a very different thing.

Do you stop yourself from changing your mind because you don't want to appear wrong? Do you work with someone like this?

The power in being wrong comes from using others to help you be right.


Can you be a more successful leader by using the power in being wrong?

Stephen Bates is the founder of Certain Change Ltd - helping business leaders, entrepreneurs and high achievers deal with disruption; to be confident and highly adaptable to make certain change when it is needed most. 

Over the last 30 years, Stephen's experiences have led to the innovation of high impact techniques, brought together in programmes that cover a unique combination of mind-set and skill-set development for executives, entrepreneurs and high achievers – for them to play and influence others to operate in their Genius Zone.

His goal is to teach people how to understand how they and others make decisions, how to make better ones and, put simply, to get out of their own way to achieve far better results. 

How to approach your business transformation

Topics: Leadership, Change

Stephen Bates

Written by Stephen Bates