Creative Leadership: Humility and Being Wrong
Creative Leadership

During one of the 2004 presidential debates, an audience member stood up and asked Democrat John Kerry if he could give an example of when he had been wrong about something. The questioner was asking the question as a measure of character and trying to divine whether Kerry, like President George W. Bush, was a leader who never admitted an error in judgment. (Bush had been adamant in the contention that “no mistakes were made” in the Iraq War.)

Confronted with this opportunity, Kerry not only swung and missed, he didn’t even understand the question being pitched. Kerry immediately launched into an answer about how “his side” had not been wrong about the war; that Bush’s team was the group that deserved blame; and he spent his 90 seconds recounting Bush’s failures. Kerry was unable to perceive the value in admitting error. The message to voters was clear: he would probably be a leader not much different from Bush.

This is not uncommon for leaders. After all the ego structure of people who rise to the top of organizations, and in politics, is such that the more confident you are, the surer of yourself you are and the more successful you are likely to be.

In an era where out-size, narcissistic business leaders are treated like rock stars, with the requisite cult followings, of course, elevating humility as an essential trait for creative leaders may seem quaint, even a bit anachronistic. Yet, humility and the ability to admit error may be two of the most important qualities a truly creative leader must have.

Creative leaders must be more than big personalities if they hope to lead successful organizations. They must be deeply in tune with human behavior, and, most critically, understand who they are and what motivates them to success and what precipitates their failures.

One of the central precepts of our new theory of Creative Leadership is that by embracing humility, creative leaders advantage their organizations and themselves. Moreover, leaders must not only recognize their failures but also acknowledge them publicly. In being wrong, they can find both authenticity and opportunity.

Creative leadership is built on the idea that everyone at every level in the organization is a leader; that leaders must know themselves, alert to their failings and graces, to better serve the organization; and that only by mastering complexity – both human and organizational – will leaders be able to achieve alignment.

The dictionary defines humility as modesty and lacking in pretense, but that doesn’t mean humble leaders are meek or timid. A humble leader is secure enough to recognize his or her weaknesses and to seek the input and talents of others. By being receptive to outside ideas and assistance, creative leaders open up new avenues for the organization and for their employees.

A creative leader is self-aware and not weighed down with insecurities, constantly worrying about how they are perceived by their employees and peers. Their egos reflect the reality of their personality and circumstance. They are not selfless and without ego; they have a healthy sense of self that doesn’t respond to threats. From this emotional vantage point, they are able to effectively lead their organizations. Leaders who cultivate humility don’t trade on hubris, nor are they guilty of denigrating their colleagues or competitors to aggrandize themselves. Quietly confident, they inspire others to tap their talents and to seek achievement, all in service to the organization and its mission.

Keith Reinhard is just this type of leader. Both of us are unabashed admirers of Keith, the CEO Emeritus of DDB Worldwide, the global marketing and communications giant. We have known him for several years through our work with the Berlin School of Creative Leadership, and he has been a source of great wisdom and advice about creative leadership.

The self-effacing Reinhard has said one of his highest goals as a leader is empowering his people as much as possible. He believes that, “people respond to leaders who give credit to their team for success and take responsibility upon themselves for failures.”

Some leaders contend that admitting error is a sign of weakness and an open door for allegations of illegitimacy. So often the opposite is true. What is more powerful than an individual who can stand in front of his or her employees and admit that the failure was his or hers? What better way to gain the respect and admiration of your team than to take the blame and responsibility on yourself rather than calling out someone on your team? By admitting you are wrong, by taking blame, you will have a group of more committed followers.

The work of Kathryn Schulz, the author of Being Wrong, is particularly on point here. Schulz notes: “As a culture, we haven’t… mastered the basic skill of saying ‘I was wrong.’ This is a startling deficiency, given the simplicity of the phrase, the ubiquity of error, and the tremendous public service that acknowledging it could provide.”

We are frequently taught that leaders, especially aspiring leaders, should hide weaknesses and mistakes. This view is flawed. It is not only good to admit you are wrong when you are; but also it can also be a powerful tool for leaders—actually increasing legitimacy and, when practiced regularly, can help to build a culture that actually increases solidarity, innovation, openness to change and many other positive features of organizational life.

But there is a deeper, more profound, point that Schulz makes in her wonderful book. It is that when you are open to the idea of being wrong, when you truly believe that another path might be better and are not cowed by it, you will be a more creative and innovative person. You will take more risks; you will explore more paths with unknown outcomes; and you will build a better organization.

Individuals who know themselves are courageously able to pursue creative leadership. What is profoundly powerful about embracing humility and publicly acknowledging errors is the link between authenticity and the success of the individual and the organization.

Author: Doug Guthrie

Article was used from the Forbes website click here

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