Executive Education

Why it’s not always right to be right

Let me start with an apology. For countless leaders, I will be preaching to the converted. Those who get it. I classify you as exceptional leaders and I would like to think of you as the norm. Unfortunately, whilst you may be the majority, you are certainly not the many.

But there are those who do not get it. Those leaders who continue thinking that being right is what great leaders do. I used to be one of those leaders. It does not make me proud. With respect and admiration for what you do, the following is for consideration. Disagreement is ok, but curiosity is mandatory.

No one likes someone who is right every single time. Correction. No one likes someone who thinks they are right every single time.

You know the type. Those who must win every single debate, dialogue or discussion on every single occasion. In their mind, there is always a winner and a loser. American writer and public intellectual Gore Vidal said, ‘The four most beautiful words in our common language: I told you so’. In the corporate world, these are the worst type of leaders. They value their own opinions ahead of others, are self-important, lack inner-confidence and unacceptably, limit transformation by curbing thought diversity.  Individuals who work for them are resigned to inertia. They don’t challenge, input or question and why should they? They know they will lose.

Exceptional leaders concede. They admit with unashamed vulnerability that someone else has triumphed. That they got it wrong and someone else got it right. As a result, they change their views as well as their direction. We love this type of leadership. It shows personal reflection, concession and growth. All for a better outcome. If only it happened more often.

Outstanding leaders compromise. They seek to understand before being understood. They appreciate that it does not matter if they are right or wrong. What matters are mutually beneficial outcomes. Relationships that are strengthened through cooperative interaction. Values of trust and respect that are enduring. And a realisation that collaborative thought diversity will always triumph individualism. For those of you who have experienced sustained business (and personal) success, odds on, compromise will be a cornerstone capability of yours.

Will there be exceptions to this rule?  Definitely. When personal values are compromised, or the criticality of an outcome is imperative, decision-making by hierarchy will dictate. Great leaders know however, that these instances are by exception.

Principled leaders unlock. My favourite Maori proverb: ‘‘Kāore te kumara e kōrero mō tōna ake reka’: ‘the kumara (sweet potato) does not say how sweet it is’. I like this. The leaders that I admire tend to be unassuming. They lead by example. They are modest and humble, and they promote others ahead of themselves. Freedom, autonomy and stretch are a given. Even if their belief is unquestionably correct or their way of doing is infinitely better, they step back, coach and support. Critically, they unlock potential. Seeing things in others that they cannot recognise in themselves. This is the hallmark of exceptional leadership.

Experienced leaders, learn. A few years back, I was exposed to the following formula: C+W>E (curiosity and willingness > experience). It remains one of my few useful algebra equations.

Whilst pertaining to talent recruitment, it also reminds me of the importance of insight – insight that leads to change. When I was younger, I struggled with the need and desire to be right. Business was a game to me. A contest biased towards the unambiguous cold reality of results. Intellectual sparring with peers (and often bosses) was fun and through good fortune or stubbornness, I would generally come out on top. The problem, however, was seldom would it be enduring. Great leaders learn from insights and mistakes. They learn from experiences. The art is having the curiosity and willingness to change, doing it early in your career and being a defining role model for others to follow.

A word of advice. One of my earliest lessons within life came from my mother. It relates to confidence and conviction. She told me that when you have true confidence in your idea or position, you don’t have to make the other person or party wrong for you to be right. Furthermore, it’s important that a person can totally disagree with another’s opinion without feeling that the other opinion has to be silenced. There is power and validity in both these insights. 

Back to my opening apology. Like many, my expectations for corporate leaders are longer than those above. They are demanding, challenging and I believe, stretching. Importantly, they are considerably shorter than those that I set for myself. I hope this never changes.

Written by Hamish Thomson.

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Hamish Thomson
Hamish Thomson, author of It’s Not Always Right to be Right (Wiley $29.99), is a former Regional President and global brand head for Mars Incorporated (UK, Australia, Chicago), a senior sales and marketing lead for Reebok International (England and the Netherlands) and an account exec in the London advertising scene. Based in Sydney, he is a strategic consultant and non-executive director of OzHelp Foundation.

Hamish Thomson is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow him on LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website.