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A leader’s guide to being wrong

As children, we discover that being wrong and getting in trouble are painful experiences. Mistakes reflect on us personally: Rather than taking them in stride, we let them balloon into pronouncements on our intelligence and character. Sadly, we learn the blame game is an effective way to deflect criticism. We grow up practicing how NOT to be wrong.

Being right, by contrast, validates our egos and our opinions. We believe being right causes our co-workers, family members and even complete strangers look up to us. Being right makes us look good and feel good.

I would argue that our insistence on being right does not serve us well, and especially does not serve CEOs and executives who want to grow their businesses and grow as leaders. We need to challenge the cultural bias against taking blame and learn to acknowledge when we are wrong in the interest of self-improvement.

Be wrong, productively

If you don’t make mistakes, you are not trying hard enough. Really. Now, I’m not saying let’s all aspire to flub up, but I am encouraging you to take a few (calculated) risks. Commit yourself to personal growth. Give it a shot. The key to being wrong productively is being willing to admit that you were wrong. This way, you can learn from your mistakes. Acknowledgement drives you toward a better solution, faster.

Many business leaders and entrepreneurs, for example, have found success in the philosophy of “failing fast”: learning by doing and quickly discovering what doesn’t work. Furthermore, admitting to a mistake or noting that something didn’t go as planned builds trust among your team.

I know it sounds trendy, but transparency in admitting your mistakes takes courage. Transparency is key to growth. Increasing our transparency increases the opportunity to receive help from others and build greater trust.

Commit to continuous improvement

You can’t improve if you can’t admit you don’t have all the answers. A willingness to listen to better ideas paves the way for better outcomes. After all, none of us is as smart as all of us.

In some organizations, leadership establishes “quality circles” of multidisciplinary teams to solve problems. In the Vistage CEO peer advisory groups that I run, executives from non-competing organizations invite others to poke holes or troubleshoot their solutions in the interest of achieving a better outcome for their business and themselves. Both approaches invite others to bring new perspectives in the pursuit of continuous improvement.

Good team members help good leaders

Fostering a culture of continuous improvement, trust and zero tolerance for the blame game will align your team to accomplish greater things. Being wrong becomes a tool for growth, learning and trust building, rather than a negative appraisal of one’s character.

Embrace the notion of being wrong so you can get it right!

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  1. Avatar

    Brian J Eichenberg

    January 27, 2018 at 1:46 pm

    i think this is spot on advice for just about anybody. i am forwarding it to my children.

  2. Avatar

    David B Haddad PhD

    December 27, 2018 at 1:18 pm

    There is just one critical aspect missing here. Yes, allowing oneself the courage to fail is important. But it points to something more: the genuine need to learn.

    Most people are startled when faced with a real and undeniable learning deficit. Digging for the courage to discover what needs to be learned and, importantly, how one needs to go about it, is just as intimidating.

    But don’t be cowed. Step up. Rearrange the pieces of the puzzle – adding new ones where necessary – and you will lead with even more authority than you thought possible.


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