I was in elementary school the first time the feeling hit. Can’t recall the context, probably multiplication tables or spelling drills. Still, I will always recall the feeling of being wrong. The tightened chest, the gasp in breath, the blood rushing to my face is still vivid. As Kathryn Schulz (2010) describes in her wonderful book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error we can blissfully travel through life being wrong. It’s the moment after we realize you are wrong that is painful. The moment when we feel embarrassed, shamed, insufficient. It’s that moment that drives us, to avoidance of the feeling of being “wrong” to pursue the warm, comfortable wrap of being “right.” Perhaps you, like me, realized at an early age that being wrong feels bad and being right feels good.
We not only seek the solace of “rightness” for ourselves, we project it onto our leaders. Being right is an expected condition of leadership. We look for certitude, confidence and strength of conviction in people we select to follow. For leaders, certainty is preferred to hesitation. Determination preferable to review. Declarations are more expected than questions. Because, we have come to expect, leaders must show the way. Above all, he or she must be right. We have little tolerance for leaders who are wrong.
What are the costs of the adrenaline rush of feeling right? According to Schulz (2010), there are several. Perhaps the most obvious is that often opinion masquerades as uncontested truth. Right is often in the eyes of the beholder. We can agree on conventionally accepted truths in life, as I learned about multiplication tables and spelling quizzes at an early age. The majority can also agree on moral and civil principles, ranging from the spiritual (i.e. the bounty of love trumps the harm of hate) to the mundane (i.e. red means stop.) Conventionally accepted truths might be fewer than we may think, but opinions abound. Leaders can forcefully present opinion with the conviction of truth, as we will learn again in the next election.
Once we feel right, we nurture it like a newborn. We seek confirmation by looking for information that supports our view and discount what doesn’t. We develop communication strategies to convince others to join us in our rightness.
The need to feel right narrows our circle. We associate with others who reinforce that we are right, because we agree with them and they are right. As Schulz puts it, “If we often form our beliefs on the basis of communities, we also form communities on the basis of beliefs.” The Internet offers plenty of examples of communities formed on the basis of shared beliefs. This nurturing not only strengthens our convictions, but raises the stakes.
The more convinced that we are right, the more frightening the prospects of being wrong. If we can feel this in our gut, imagine the prospects of being wrong for a leader who is the standard-bearer of beliefs for legends of supporters? The scary prospect of being wrong is one factor that encourages people to hold onto opinions long after their usefulness and at times, long into harm.
Moments of greatness are possible when we are ready to allow ourselves and our leaders to open the door to being wrong.
- Get to know and learn to like people with different opinions. You never have to agree. But liking someone who sees things differently increases the chances of energetic discussions over personal attacks.
- Forcefully challenge your views. Take the opposite position to a current belief and argue in favor of it with conviction.
- Give grace. When you, or someone else, allows for a change in view or an opinion, celebrate it as a moment of greatness instead of a mark of fault.
What’s wrong with being right? Well, nothing. The benefits of being right, however, accrue to those who actually are right, not just think that they are right. The conviction has to come from a deep sense of discovery and self-knowledge. And to get to what we believe is right, we might have to admit to being wrong.