The Danger When a Leader is Always Right

When a leader is always right, they’re not effective.

If you had been with me early in my career, you would have seen my growing frustration. My first job out of grad school was teaching and I had a class of students who consistently:
  • came to class
  • participated and engaged with the material
  • worked to learn the subject matter
  • However, when it came time to display their knowledge, they struggled to do better than F or D level work.My team and I labored over our review sessions, making sure we were not missing any content. Nevertheless, the class as a whole did not improve.Concerned about my effectiveness as a teacher, I began experimenting with different instructional and review methods.With one of them, student performance improved overnight – from Fs and Ds to Bs and even a few As!

    Does It Work?

    As it turned out, this group of students learned better through the act of guided writing than any other technique.The students did not know it themselves, and my team and I only learned it through trial and error.What I remember most about this incident was the response of another teacher. When I shared my discovery with her, she said:
  • She was covering the necessary material.
  • Her instructional methods were perfectly sound.
  • Students should take responsibility for their own learning.
  • She saw no reason to change.
  • Of course, she was “right.”“Right” in so far as yes, her instructional methods were good, and yes, students ultimately should take responsibility for their own learning.What bothered me, however, is that she was consciously choosing being “right” over being effective. What we’d been doing did not work. Why on earth would we keep doing it?

    The Perils When a Leader is Always Right

    One problem when a leader is always right is that they lose their influence.I never did succeed in persuading my colleague to change her teaching methods. I was young and I made the same mistake she did with the students. I dug in, confident in my “rightness” and continued to point out how she was wrong.No surprise – it didn’t work.Convincing someone that you’re right and they’re wrong almost never changes their behavior. People are stubborn and we cling to our misconceptions, just because they’re ours.One time I stubbornly argued with the cashier at an airport’s Chinese takeout counter because they wouldn’t give me extra vegetables. I was willing to pay for them, but they insisted it couldn’t be done (despite having done it before).Fortunately, Karin was there and was able to talk some sense. “David, you’re right – and we’re going miss our flight. Just order a vegetable dish and mix them.”Now that was effective!Another danger when a leader is always right is that you don’t get what you need from your team. When you’re always right (or just act like you are) your team will quickly stop sharing ideas and sink into minimal performance.Influence requires more than being “right.”Related: Getting the Feedback You Crave

    The Antidote to Being Right

    As a leader, your goal is to achieve results. Maybe you want to increase revenue, grow your team’s capacity, or change the world.It’s vital that you keep those goals in front of you and regularly ask yourself what it is you really want. Asking what you really want is the antidote to always being right.Many new leaders (and more than a few experienced leaders!) get stuck because they cannot see past their own “rightness” and do the things that will help them be effective and achieve results.

    Here are a few examples:

  • “Why should I have to tell them again? I said it once.” Yes, you did – three months ago. People have many priorities competing for their attention and important items often need multiple repetitions in multiple forums .
  • “Why should I encourage/thank them? They’re just doing their job.” Yes, they are. Yet people are more engaged when they feel appreciated and are seen as a human being and not just a cog in a machine.
  • “Why should I hear opposing viewpoints? I’m an expert in this subject and I’ve looked at all the options.” Yes, you are and I’m sure you did a thorough analysis, but if you want to make the best decision and have your team to be committed to the idea, their voices need to be heard. Besides, you might be surprised by someone else’s perspective.
  • Your Turn

    It takes courage and humility to look honestly at what you’re doing and ruthlessly assess whether or not it’s working. And it’s something the best leaders do regularly.If you want to achieve results and have more influence, look for places where you’ve clung to being “right.” Then let it go…and choose to be effective.