I came across a CEO of a very successful company the other week and his philosophy on leadership was to “never be wrong”. He equated the ability to be right all the time with the ability to lead his business well because he felt that being wrong showed weakness. No amount of analogies with the world’s dictators, Darth Vader or any other despot would shift him in his firm belief that his success stemmed directly from his omniscience.
It’s impossible to coach such people and so I walked away from the assignment, feeling incredibly sorry for the people in his organisation and for him. Like all immovable objects, he will eventually crumble.
And yet, he is not alone. There is still a pervasive myth in organisations that to be a great leader, you must be made of cast iron with titanium deflector shields and a brain the size of a planet. Many organisations led by such super human individuals do succeed – for a time, but I have noticed that they stall. Their growth is stunted and they never quite reach their full potential, a bit like the person who remains fixed in their views, it leaves no room for development because to develop you must be wrong about things and that means being vulnerable.
The super coach, Michael Neill said that there are two ways to be bullet proof – either be tough or be transparent. I much prefer the transparent approach for many, many reasons. Jim Collins encapsulated his work on great leadership in “Good to Great” with a simple equation “Professional will + Humility = Great Leadership”. If you’re busy being right all the time and inflexible then there is no room for humility and your business or your team only get one side of the equation, leading to imbalance, dysfunction and deep discontent.
Leaders must learn to be humble. They need to know how to be wrong, whilst maintaining a will to succeed. It’s absolutely ok to have a standard of excellence, strategic plan and vision for an organisation combined with the humility to see these things through and make a u-turn if they turn out to be flawed. No CEO can act alone, they need a board of intelligent, outspoken directors to help them fulfil the aims of the business. CEOs need people around them who will be critical, constructive and honest about their performance and the CEO needs to be able to handle such feedback.
Obama has been criticised for his perceived weaknesses and as far as I can see (we only get the BBC’s version of events) he has admitted where he’s been wrong and taken full responsibility for this. I admire a leader who is prepared to do this publicly because it shows a strength of character that so many of our political leaders lack. When leaders refuse to admit they’re wrong, they look stupid because the intelligent people around them know they are wrong and whisper about it behind their backs, thus undermining their leadership.
Like the emperor with his new clothes, an inflexible leader who does not show vulnerability ends up looking like a fool. Everyone around him or her knows that he or she is naked and yet no one will say a word. This is not great leadership, this is stupidity and no one benefits from a leader behaving stupidly.
The best thing a leader can do is learn to be vulnerable which often takes a massive journey of self-discovery, not to be undertaken lightly. They may need help with this, coaching, support, more learning or even a sabbatical. What they do need to do is open themselves up to new possibilities, new ways of thinking, new ways of doing things and understand that they may well be wrong about many things.
The best brains in our land used to the think the world was flat until someone told them it wasn’t. It took those best brains a while to admit they might be wrong and some made the round earth people suffer as a consequence – it didn’t make them less wrong though.
So, my clarion call to leaders everywhere is to exercise transparency, humility and admit when they’re wrong so that we can all grow, all develop and thrive.
Rebecca Bonnington is a Leadership Coach, Corporate Trainer and Licensed Trainer of NLP. You can contact her on 07734 934084 or firstname.lastname@example.org. She is also a regular contributor to the3rdimagazine.