There’s probably nothing more annoying than some self-important jerk bragging about how smart he is. Football picks, investments, business decisions – it doesn’t matter what it’s about; it’s that smug arrogance that gets you. And, truth be told, that jealous little voice in your head that says, “Damn, why didn’t I do that?”
Yup, we all hate that guy. Which is ironic because, sometimes, we are “that guy.” We’re all that way some of the time and some of us are that way all of the time. Regardless, if you’re that way when it counts – when it’s time to make important decisions – that’s a real problem.
It’s one thing to be a little obnoxious, it’s another thing entirely to think you have all the answers. To think you know it all. To think you know what you don’t know.
You may very well be smart. You may even be the smartest guy in the room. But you’re still just a guy. And you’re still in a room. Which means there’s a whole universe of information, knowledge, equations, and factors that you’re not privy to outside your little head and outside that little room.
You might be a highly successful businessperson. You might be a highly accomplished senior executive. But if you’re in a position to make important decisions that affect others and you don’t know what you don’t know, then you’re dangerous.
Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s okay to fight tooth and nail when you’re sure you’ve got it right and everyone else has it wrong. Those knock-down-drag-out conflicts are absolutely worth having. That’s how diverse teams of highly opinionated professionals end up reaching the right decision.
But when you’re not sure, you should make your case and then shut up and listen to what the other smart people in the room have to say. Listen to your advisors. Listen to your lieutenants. Listen to your peers. Listen to those whose job it is to know. Then, if it’s your call to make, listen to your gut and make the right call. In that order.
If it turns out you were right, never breathe another word about it. If it turns out you were wrong, the sooner you admit that the better. Don’t make a big deal out of it. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Just admit it, learn from it, and move on.
No, it’s not great to be wrong. If you’re in a leadership or a management position, it’s definitely not a good thing. But it comes with the territory. No pain, no gain, right? And let me tell you, not admitting you’re wrong to yourself and others has far greater, far worse consequences than just being wrong.
Yes, I know about the importance of being confident and decisive. Let me explain something about confidence. Confidence comes from experience. Trial and error. Look at the words. “Trial” and “error.” Get it? If you don’t admit making mistakes, you don’t learn from them. You don’t gain wisdom and you don’t gain confidence. Simple as that.
As for being decisive, making decisions in a vacuum or without being reasonably well informed is dumb. That’s not what being decisive means. It means learn what you need to know, make the call in a reasonable timeframe, and stick with it, at least until there’s plenty of evidence that you made the wrong call. Then admit it and do the right thing.
I can’t tell you how many businesses and companies I’ve seen crash and burn because their leaders either didn’t understand those simple concepts or, more likely, they lacked the self-awareness, humility, maturity, and courage to lower their emotional barriers and behave like confident, decisive leaders.
It’s hard to believe how many CEOs, vice presidents, business owners, and yes, political leaders, come to mind. Nearly all of them lost their jobs and their companies because they couldn’t or wouldn’t be honest with themselves. Instead, they put their fear, their egos, and their selfishness ahead of their stakeholders.
If this sounds at all preachy, I’ll let you in on a little secret. I learned it the hard way. Actually, I’m still learning. And on my path of learning the virtues of knowing what I don’t know, I came across this proverb from the Tao Teh Ching by Lao Tzu that I found to be quite instructive and inspiring:
He who knows men is clever;
He who knows himself has insight.
He who conquers men has force;
He who conquers himself is truly strong.
Steve Tobak is a Silicon Valley-based strategy consultant and former senior executive of the technology industry.