It’s Ok To Be Wrong

Lance HuffPo, Integrity, Leadership Leave a Comment

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Originally posted at The Huffington Post

Yesterday I came across this interesting  piece examining THE question facing Hillary Clinton. On the eve of a historic Democratic National Convention in which Clinton will officially become the first woman ever nominated for President, Politico asked this question: “Why Can’t Hillary Stop Fudging the Truth?” The fascinating aspect of this article isn’t the political angles, but the human one:

Over the past quarter-century she has all too often offered up pained and partial answers to controversies, too often seeming to hide more than she is willing to reveal, only to find that, again and again, the issue blows up in her face.

Hillary Clinton is, by temperament and training, a lawyer, and a perennially cautious one at that. She is a literal, linear thinker. That might explain her famous lawyerly assertion to Matt Lauer that the allegations that her husband had an affair with a former White House intern—and then lied about it—were not “going to be proven true.” (After all, she had no inkling of the blue dress and DNA evidence that would prove her so devastatingly wrong.)

But a fuller explanation for the personality trait in Clinton that makes her shrink from full disclosure would seem to have some deeper source, whether in a reluctance to confess failure or error to a father who was perpetually demanding and judgmental, or in 40 years of living with a husband who often had more than his share of family secrets to keep.

In her perpetual determination never to be seen as having done anything wrong, she all too often left the unmistakable impression that she had.

Clinton’s resilience—her ability to slog on in the face of the worst possible reverses—is the trait that has helped her get within reach of the biggest prize of her life. The flip side is that her capacity for a level of defensiveness and denial that sometimes seems to border on magical thinking might yet keep the ultimate goal out of her grasp.

This blog isn’t about politics, and this post isn’t even about lying (those two things only feel like synonyms). Rather, what interested me about this piece on Hillary Clinton was the humanizing look at how the fear of appearing wrong is a seed which, over time, germinates into a bitter, self-defeating fruit that can cripple even the most focused and determined of leaders.

For leaders at all levels, a reluctance to admit error is poison not just because it leads to a “tortured relationship with the truth,” though it certainly does that. Equally fatal to effective leadership is the way a reluctance to admit error forecloses learning from occurring. The psychology of protecting one’s sense of self can trap a leader in a maze of informational dead-ends, as they are driven to maintain an image of supreme competence and unerring judgment. Because being seen as wrong is viewed as an indictment on their person and a threat to their position, leaders operating with this version of a “fixed mindset” put all their rhetorical/emotional/organizational effort into dodging the impact of contradictory information instead of simply embracing the new insights it can bring.

Several years ago, Harvard Business Review featured the results of an in-depth survey of failed or ineffective corporate leaders. While being wrong was not among  “Ten Fatal Flaws That Derail Leaders,” this was:

Don’t learn from mistakes. They may make no more mistakes than their peers, but they fail to use setbacks as opportunities for improvement, hiding their errors and brooding about them instead.

This is no way to lead.

Instead, as “Wrongologist” Kathryn Schulz urged from the TED stage five years ago, embrace the wonder and growth that comes from stepping “outside that tiny, terrified space of rightness.”

Regardless of where and how you lead, know this: you’re human. Being wrong is part of the deal. No matter who you are, you will not make history as being the first person who was never wrong. The sooner you accept this fate, the more likely you will succeed at finding the path that leads to making an impact worthy of the history books.