Doubt Your Infallibility: Or What Leaders Tend NOT TO DO!

Benjamin Franklin, the older I grow the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, humility, self awareness

Here is the full quote, which was too long to put on to the image.

Having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others. Ben Franklin

That was part of the wisdom Franklin offered to his fellow delegates at the United States constitutional convention in 1787.

Here is one of the conundrums of leadership. Decisive leadership, courageous leadership, bold leadership, visionary leadership - all common phrases and all suggesting full commitment to strongly held beliefs. That is how we define leadership.

Yet, that is the problem and peril as well. For by itself, those phrases can be nothing more than descriptions of hubris/pride that has no openness to the input of others; that has no awareness of one's limits and biases; that has no recognition of one's personal error and fallibility.

I stand with Franklin on the personal experience of having "changed my mind" on important matters. I have changed my mind on substantial beliefs as well. I have changed my mind often on strategies, methods and tactics. Sometimes my mind is a radical reversal. More often those mind-shifts are less disruptive, but still significant. 

The very experience of being a life long learner implies that I do not currently know as much as I will know tomorrow (or next year). And as I learn new things, that means the old things are strengthened, and challenged, and tweaked, and modified. As much as I would like to be infallible - I am not.

Give me about ten minutes with most leaders (or with anyone for that matter), and I can make a decent assessment of where they stand on their own infallibility.

Will they talk more, or listen?
Will they pontificate or dialog?
Will they ask great questions that matter?
Will they disclose the struggle and tension of their own journey toward answers?
Will they have any awareness of their own biases, distortions, assumptions, and limits?

Franklin shows us the way on this. He shows us the way by sharing his own story. That is a story of having firm convictions about things of which he was resolute and sure, and which later - more knowledge and insight required a new opinion.

I wonder if there is ever the legitimacy of hierarchical, highly directive, dictates that invite no conversation, dialog or exploration? My own "leaning" is such occasions are rare sightings. 

Sure "the buck" always stops someplace! But it is best if it stops and speaks only after long conversation that leads to deep discernment that generates reasonable consensus. The skills to be in such conversations are not easily learned.

Brian K. Rice
Leadership ConneXtions International