Imagine your future self, ten years from now.
Take a pause, and really envision. What does your environment look like? What do you look like?
If you’re like most people, the scene in your head looks a lot like today. John Green touched on this in his novel, Looking for Alaska:
“Imagining the future is a kind of nostalgia…”
But, when you do the same exercise looking back ten years, you’ll probably see so much that has changed. (I personally get a kick out of old screenshots in my photo folders–iMessage, Instagram and your favorite web browser all look way different today, and you’ve probably never once noticed a change).
We all have a limited imagination. Our vision of the future looks an awful lot like the recent past, perhaps with a few scenes from Futurama mixed in. This is human nature, and a leader isn’t immune to it. None of us can predict the future, nor should we be expected to. If we could, we’d likely be making a lot more money not doing the job we are doing today.
Our limited foresight should be accepted as a general truth, so why do we so often feel the need to win a strategic discussion? Why is our natural inclination often to protect our ego and prove ourselves correct, even at the expense of actually doing the correct thing?
This is paradoxical to me. It should be that the higher someone’s status in an organization, the more safety they should feel to not know or to be wrong. By not knowing, the leader signals trust and empowers the people they lead to solve problems. But I’ve found the opposite to be more frequently true, where the leader signals the need to justify their status by being right.
I can’t remember a time when I’ve seen a top executive admit to being wrong in a matter of significance in a timely fashion*. (This is the same in politics, where someone open-minded enough to change their view in light of new information is labeled a flip-flopper, to the great detriment of well-functioning government). There is still a common stigma, especially in legacy companies, that a leader saying “great point, I stand corrected” would somehow undermine her authority.
But we should aspire to not just be willing to admit when we’re wrong, but to revel in it. I remember hearing an anecdote about psychologist Daniel Kahneman being thrilled when that happened, because he said it is the only way he knows he has learned something new. To Kahneman, that is cause for celebration.
I believe a modern leader has the responsibility to model the behavior of prioritizing doing the right thing over being right, making outcomes more important than egos, even if it feels unnatural at first. If you can demonstrate the intellectual humility to approach alternative viewpoints with genuine curiosity, this kind of openness to learning will trickle down through the teams you lead.
(And personally, this is a major reason why I’m such an advocate for design thinking: it essentially normalizes the fact that none of us knows the way forward into a future that will be a lot different from what we can imagine today, and therefore we don’t need to stake a claim on any position. From this starting point, we can explore a range of probabilistic outcomes and test assumptions to iterate forward towards the best solution).
*Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer did finally admit to being wrong about laughing at the iPhone, nine years after it was launched and well past a point of credibility for not acknowledging it.