Sometimes I think the six hardest words in the English language are “I don’t know” and “I was wrong”.
There is often an aversion to admit that we know less than we really do, to owning up to our shortcomings, or to being willing to seek insights from others. Acknowledging mistakes, lapses in judgment or poor decisions, is not something that always comes naturally to us. (Or am I the only person that deals with this?)
And yet, everyone will readily concede that a trait of a good leader, a primal leader if you will, is self-awareness and acknowledging, both privately and publicly, ones limitations as well as strengths. Freely owning up to mistakes, taking responsibility for them and freely admitting what we don’t know and being open to learning from others.
Mel Schwartz, a psychotherapist based in New York City, could not have said it better: “One of the most prevalent – and damaging – themes in our culture is the need to be right.”
So why is it often so difficult to commit these fundamental principles to practice in our daily lives? While there is no one answer, which is usually the case, there are several contributing factors that are worth noting.
We learn at an early age that it is good to be right. Our educational system is rooted in this fundamental paradigm. Students are rewarded for having the right answers, in the form of higher grades, better test scores, admission into more prestigious universities, greater success in life, or so we are told. The paradox is that having the right answers doesn’t create a learning experience. Instead, by making mistakes and being willing to acknowledge them is where life’s best lessons are learned.
Getting good grades, having the right answers, ostensibly feeds our self-esteem. To what extent do our own insecurities and fragile egos drive our need to be right? Do we bolster our own sense of self-worth by seeming smarter than others, by blaming others for our own mistakes and shortcomings? Or in reality, whether we realize it or not, do these actions actually undermine our self-esteem and contribute to our insecurities, resulting in a never-ending cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies?
Fear, the sister emotion to insecurity, also drives our need to be right. When we are challenged, called out for a mistake or for being wrong, we fear losing credibility and control. And if we lose control, we are pushed out of our comfort zone and become vulnerable to others.
A few years ago, several of my colleagues and I read a book by Patrick Lencioni called Getting Naked. Check it out if you’re unfamiliar with it. Not only did we provide the book to our team members, but we also took time to discuss it in a company meeting and to identify ways we could commit, on a daily basis, the principles set forth in the book.
“Getting naked” refers to making yourself vulnerable, being open and honest without pretense, admitting that you don’t always have the right answer, admitting to your mistakes. While Lencioni focuses on service providers and consultants and their relationships with their clients, the principles set forth in the book are equally applicable across all of our day-to-day lives, both personal and professional.
As I write this and think about how to apply these principles to my own actions and interactions with others, I am reminded that, sometimes, change occurs in incremental steps that are seemingly simple but hugely impactful in the long run.
So what if I commit to intentionally reaching out, at least once a day, to someone to teach me something I don’t know? What if I resolve to own up to my shortcomings, however small, when they manifest themselves, rather than brushing them aside or hiding them? What if I pledge, every day, to check my ego at the door and admit my vulnerabilities? To overcome my fears and insecurities?
And what if each of us made this same commitment? How might that change the dynamics in our personal and professional lives, result in more positive and fulfilling outcomes, contribute to our growth and collective success? Working together, we become examples of good leaders to our families, colleagues and clients. It might not change the world, but it would change the world around us.
 Patrick Lencioni, Getting Naked, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2009.
For over thirty years, Mike has been actively involved, as a coach, entrepreneur, scientist, business executive and management consultant, in the areas of executive leadership, organizational development and change management, strategic planning and execution, and financial analysis. He has provided strategic, operational and financial leadership to small and medium-sized firms, as well as Fortune 500 companies and large government organizations, in a broad range of industries. Mike holds BS and PhD degrees from the Georgia Institute of Technology and has had additional training in finance and accounting, strategic planning and management, leadership development, and succession planning, from various top-tier institutions.