12 Things Good Bosses Believe (#7)

I aim to fight as if I am right, and listen as if I am wrong —
and to teach my people to do the same thing.

#7 of Robert Sutton’s 12 Things Good Bosses Believe should be a no-brainer. Military leaders generally don’t have a problem fighting as if they’re right, but what does “listen as if I am wrong” mean for leaders who are driven, experienced, and trained to perform with total confidence? Let’s start by looking at the antithesis.

good bosses

Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, talks with members of the Marine Guard Detachment at the U.S. embassy in Cairo, Feb. 20, 2016. Link to photo.

Here’s what “listen as if I am wrong” DOESN’T MEAN:

  • I talk through the entire engagement
  • I don’t ask for feedback or opinions
  • I check my BlackBerry while others are explaining their points
  • I cram too many topics into a meeting, which prevents discussion time
  • I don’t let the team know what I’m thinking
  • I only give intellectual or professional consideration to people in my “in” crowd
  • I assume I am the most talented person in the room
  • I don’t foster open and unattributable discussion

Have you experienced these before? See any trends? The leader is self-focused and assumes that no one else is going to offer anything of value, so he doesn’t prioritize discussion or feedback. Followers easily pick up on that attitude and it immediately stifles their sense of inclusion and participation.

Here’s what “listen as if I am wrong” might look like for a military leader:

  • I allow and encourage the team to voice their opinions
  • I give undivided attention to whoever is speaking and I TAKE NOTES
  • I separate rank and position (including my own) from the discussion and place a premium on the content
  • I remain humble enough to brainstorm in front of my own team so they know my creative process
  • I ask questions that cause followers to expand and develop their ideas
  • I ask if there’s a better way to accomplish the mission
  • I seek feedback to discover if my leadership style stifles participation and innovation
  • I give praise clear praise to those who get involved in the process and give tough feedback

Sutton’s blog post on Belief #7 highlights examples of how successful business leaders fostered this concept in their teams. One of those key concepts is that a leader should facilitate energetic discussion and ruthlessly-honest feedback between members of the team, which typically leads to a fleshed-out idea with group buy-in.

Questions for Leaders

  • Does your team feel like they can tell you you’re wrong?
  • How would you know if they did or didn’t?
  • From where do you receive feedback about your ideas?

If this post resonates with you, it might also be good for your team.
Please take a moment to share it with your network. Thanks!

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  • Chris Russell

    Excellent read.

    No “Popcorn” button for leadership

    Saying that there is no quick and easy process or solution to standardizing leadership sounds like a no brainer. At first glance you’d be forgiven if you dismissed the statement and the author as condescending but when you think about it for a moment you realize that for almost everything and every topic we have a set of rules or procedures that are accepted by industry professionals or subject matter experts as bona fide standards. They have been tested over time and repeatedly passed stringent requirements of analysis. Sure, they’ve been modified over time as we’ve made advancements in knowledge/technology and adapted to changing conditions.

    Occasionally we deal with topics that are less black and white and more gray. That is to say that some things are more subject to interpretation and rely as much (sometimes more) on style as they do on doctrine. Just as we have evolved to a point where cooking a batch of popcorn requires no more thought than tossing a bag into a microwave and hitting the “Popcorn” button, often we expect the same level of automation with all things in life. When we can ask Siri, Alexa or Google a question without even touching a button and instantly receive an answer to any question (as long as it’s properly formed) it can be easy to forget that we have abilities that, combined with our experiences, put us in a better position to synthesize solutions than even the most intelligent machines.

    We have to continuously remind ourselves that with evolutions in technlogy and a shifting societal mindset we need to tailor our tactics to enable clear, concise information flow in a format that our audience will be most receptive and able to retain the most relevant aspects. It’s all too easy for us to either forget where we came from (thinking a few levels down) or expect our teams to be able to relate to our level of understanding. They don’t have a macro view because they have to be specialized and focused on their pieces. This isn’t to say they shouldn’t be briefed on or understand the big picture, they just shouldn’t be worried about the ‘in between’ things that have no direct affect on their part as this could be a distraction with no useful gain.

    I think the vast majority of people have very good intentions and want to do the right thing but, as with most things today, we are forced to ration our investment of time in order to fit all the things we must accomplish and their competing partners into a list of priorities. Consequently, we often embrace or adopt the current, accepted ideal and then move on to the next task or mission.