Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Why Being Wrong Has Never Been So Right

When people think about being right, they often make a comparison to perfection.  Being right does not mean being perfect.  It just means...not wrong.  This is kind of an odd way to begin a post so let me talk about a couple of examples.

Example 1: Before this week my beloved NFL team, the Denver Broncos, had a perfect 6-0 record.  Was their approach to their previous contests and game plans "right"?  Although the record would say so, the fact that they had the worst pass defense in the league told a different story.  They were perfect, but not right.  Put another way, since they had won six games in a row, their strategy was not...wrong...but was it right?

Example 2:  I have noticed this phenomena three times in my life.  As a traffic light turns, a pedestrian starts to cross the street with a "go" signal from the other side of the street.  But failing to be aware of their situation the person does not look around.  Hence, they do not see the car barreling down the street with no intention of stopping at the red light.  Sometimes they do see the car coming and still go forward because they "have the right".  The pedestrian ends up getting hit, in some of the cases injured quite badly.  They were not "wrong" according to the traffic rules but got to spend time in the hospital and years recovering.  I bet that each of them had wished that they could do it all over again, being "wrong" according to the traffic rules but "right" in terms of an intact body.

Example 3:  I see this quite a bit in business, almost always from managers, executives, and people in charge.  Faced with a tough decision that requires decisiveness, the people opt to make no decision at all.  Hence, even though they might not technically be right, they sure as heck aren't "wrong".  In some organizations with long-tenured workforces this behavior is rewarded, or at least seems to be.  But if you look at the anecdotes about what causes most senior leaders to lose their positions, it is the fear of being wrong.  Thus when they can't be right, they do nothing at all.  Michael Heath has a good quote on his site (, "Your staff love a good decision; your staff can forgive a bad decision; your staff will never forgive no decision."

It is a fact that the entire human species has built a civilization that dominates the Earth through the product of one mistake after another.  Because of the way that we are all constructed, advancement can only come from failure.  If you look at the human body as a machine, what I've just said is true even down to the cellular level.  A person who wants to get bigger muscles must exercise.  It is through that exercise that muscles are torn at the microscopic level.  From those tears, the human body rebuilds muscles on a larger scale to "correct" the failings of the previous condition.  So, after a period of recovery what was, in essence wrong, now becomes right.

So many people and hence companies are afraid of being wrong that they have equated the absence of failure as being "right" and desirable.  What we as leaders must do is embrace the need for being wrong in lives and work habits.  Yes, being wrong is not always comfortable but it is the fastest way to get to the most correct, or right, condition.

I mentioned the Denver Broncos above.  If they had been able to go through the regular season beating everyone while giving up 30+ points, would that have served them well in the playoffs?  The answer comes from recent history and it's a resounding NO.  The failure that they encountered in Indianapolis will be the catalyst that lets them see how to move from "not wrong" to "right", well in time for January.

In business, leaders are almost always rewarded for risk taking.  Not always, but look at the heads of the firms in the Fortune 500.  Did their top leaders get to their positions by always trying to be right?  If you'll look, most likely the evidence will point to how their lives and success were influenced most often and profoundly by failure (being wrong) rather than a string of perfect achievements.  Even in the military, our greatest leaders were forged out of the mistakes that they and others made.  The American Civil Way is rife with those stories.

Perhaps the most interesting, and final, illustration of my point comes from the history of Robert the Bruce.  Most of you that do know of him remember the young Scottish Lord who ultimately betrays the hero William Wallace (played by Academy Award Winner Mel Gibson) only to gain final redemption.

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