The art of not having to be right

Many leaders have made a career out of not being right. Be that Christopher Columbus (who thought he was leaving for India for in 1492) or a myriad of current world leaders as they fumble to confront today’s complex issues.

Many of the executives I work with are full of angst about having to have the right answer. For many of them, be they professionally trained or otherwise, being right is part of who they are, what they expect of themselves and what others expect of them.

Whilst this is important, often it means that self-doubt can lead to a lack confidence and less of a desire to try something new. As a consequence, personal development opportunities for the individual and their colleagues, and growth for an organisation can be limited.

Positive psychology suggests that we should be constantly trying to do different things, push our own boundaries, take risks in a measured way and, as a result, we and those we work with will grow and learn.

How do we do this when we are constrained by ourselves, our role and the expectations around us? In simple terms, take a moment to look back and honestly appraise the great things you have already achieved. Then, try different things but in a measured way.

One of the most rewarding starting points with any new coaching client is to get them to do a review of their past successes. Have them think through the things that have gone well, their achievements, and risks they have taken that have paid off. Hiding these successes from ourselves is a human trait; we are designed to focus on the things that have gone less well. However, we all have a library of successes that many of us actively conceal from ourselves.

Take strength from what you have done in the past and use this to boost your confidence to try new things in the future. You wouldn’t be where you are today without having taken a degree of risk in the past. Why not continue to stretch yourself and take those mini risks moving forward to drive your own personal growth.


Catch phrase!

Having a small locker of phrases with which to present new ideas can be really useful. Sometimes, I find myself saying things like: “my instinct tells me that …”, “a first review suggests that …”, or “let’s test something new”. On one level these are caveats that enable us to back out of suggestions or ideas that don’t work out. In another way, they are also signals that you are taking a risk and want those around you to take that risk with you. It’s almost as if you are asking to be joined in a lab, and this is a way of receiving permission to test and learn with your tribe.

I’ve used this technique on many occasions and, as I do so, feel that I am de-risking a commitment to an outcome, particularly when that outcome is really hard to achieve or uncertain. 


The next thing to do is to try new, different things. In saying this, I’m not suggesting that you do something massively radical or put all your bets on one outcome. Think of it in terms of taking considered mini-risks, testing new things and slowly stretching yourself over time.

 This could be offering to lead a project or follow up on a client lead, things which you might not normally do. It could be that you’ve found out something new in relation to a business opportunity but you are not yet sure whether or not it’s one that’s going to work. Try offering up your opinion, or asking for executive time on your opportunity, but do so with caveat, saying it in a way that means if it doesn’t turn out right it’s not a disaster for your or the business.

 The truth is, we can never always be right. Though this might be our goal (which in itself might be limiting), if it is an expectation more realistic ambitions can be constrained. Think it through, take sensible risks, try things in safe environments, test and learn. Over time you’ll be surprised at what you can achieve. Yes, you may fail on occasion, but if you look back you’ll get confidence by observing how far you have come and get a real sense of what you can really achieve moving forward.

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