Too many leaders make fast (and wrong) decisions in the face of disagreement. They trust their own thinking, and then justify their decision based on what they interpret as positive results. Yet they fail to consider the cost of rejecting an opposing view that would have led to a different decision or additional insight.
I recently learned this firsthand: The story starts two years ago, when in a moment of weakness my wife gave me a helmet for my birthday and permission to buy a scooter. As most men might predict, after 15 months I required an upgrade. A friend was leaving the country, and needed to sell his four motorcycles (it seems you can’t have just one). After a brief email exchange, I bought his biggest, heaviest, and most purple cruising bike. I bought it sight unseen AND sound unheard.
The first time I cranked the beast I was shocked. It didn’t purr as expected. Rather, it started with an apocalyptic blast, and then settled in to an endless series of deafening explosions. My friend called this “running smoothly.” He drove it first and I could still hear him 9 blocks later. As I waited, disheartened, I reviewed my bias against macho motorcyclists with their loud bikes. With my mother’s voice lodged forever in the back of my head, I recited a long-held belief about motorcyclists: they are arrogant loners, insensitive to the needs of others. This was the group with whom I would now be associated.
At the dealership, I requested that my exhaust pipes be replaced by quiet, neighborhood-friendly ones. As the manager filled out the paper work, I asked one of those questions one asks when the real intent is to make a sarcastic statement: “Why would anyone in their right mind put such loud pipes on a bike?”
With four words, the manager’s response changed everything about my view: “Loud bikes save lives”.
An accepted, if simplistic truth is that other motorists frequently don’t see motorcycles. More accurately, distracted motorists don’t see motorcycles. In two years of riding my scooter, I’ve had three close calls. All appeared to be with minivans driven by someone talking on a cell phone. Bike noise is actually a strategy to draw attention, for everyone’s safety’s sake.
Since buying my new bike, I’ve been surprised at the fraternity I’ve been welcomed into. I can count eight interactions with strangers, none initiated by me. The conversation pattern is the same: “nice bike, great day to ride, wish I could join you.” All eight interactions ended identically with two words: “be safe.” These are not the words of “insensitive loners.” They’re more like the words of men who have experienced the pain of a fallen comrade.
It is sobering to me how often I am fooled by my own misguided assumptions. As human beings we have an ability not shared by any other animal, the ability to create. Sometimes, our minds create beliefs that may be based on experience, but not anchored by truth. And because they are “beliefs,” we believe them! Even though we may have long since forgotten the source of the belief, we often lack the discipline to rigorously test them with new information or perspectives.
A second unique human attribute is our unwillingness to be alright with being wrong. Not only do we fabricate and buy into our beliefs, we then defend them vehemently. Disagreement should send up a red flag that someone might have unique insight that we don’t have, and we’d benefit by exploring the wisdom underlying the conflict.
Unfortunately, the human attachment to being right motivates us to attack, belittle, or diminish an opposing view. This year, $3B was spent in political advertising as a testament to this. And we have little, if any, wisdom to show for that investment. This human flaw is obvious. We’d rather be justified for being right, than to honor a valuable insight by an opponent and risk being proved wrong.
Good leaders learn to trust their instincts and develop the ability to decide quickly with limited information. Great leaders invite others to expose the flaws in their thinking and challenge assumptions the leaders themselves may have been blind to.