Ashley facilitating at Startup Weekend Bali 2018

Leaders Don’t Always Have To Be Right

I used to believe that leaders have to always know what’s right. That, in order to be a good one, you have to not only be an expert in your industry but also be able to make the right calls all the time in even the toughest business situations. That’s an unreasonable expectation, of course, but it took me a surprisingly long time to figure that out. After acknowledging the error in my thinking, a lot changed for me; from how I approached leadership and how I interacted with my colleagues and superiors.

What changed in my behavior

I’ve noticed that I’m calmer now when I’m expected to make decisions for the team in tight situations compared to when I first started working in leadership positions. I think it’s because it’s as if a weight has been lifted; the expectation and pressure that I put on myself to deliver, deliver, deliver. I realized that it’s not just my burden to bear even though most of the responsibility falls to me. Responsibility is just part of the job while accountability is a team effort and that means I didn’t have to make these decisions alone.

Because of this sense of shared accountability, I had to be able to communicate this belief to my team both in words and in action. So I found myself asking for their opinions more often and asking for what they think of the decisions I was about to make. My favorite lines became “What do you think?” or “How do you feel about this?” and more and more I would make it an effort to be able to concisely articulate what I had planned and why I came up with it so that team members could pitch in and share what they thought before anything was put into action.

The last change that I thought stood out was my willingness to say “I don’t know” and stay silent for a while to collect my thoughts. I’m known to have quite an explosive personality and can get quite loud at times even when it’s not necessary (hot air comes out of my mouth, basically) and, more often than not, am quite prideful. So when I started feeling okay about admitting that I don’t know something and found that nobody really judged me for it, it was a profound experience.

What I am still working on

I actually still have to work on all the things I mentioned above but I feel like I have successfully applied them in practice often enough that I am moving towards the process of ingraining them into my subconscious; the goal is to make these cues as close to muscle memory, after all.

Giving everything some thought though, I noticed that there is still one lesson that I haven’t been able to execute well enough and that’s humbly giving feedback. On top of my explosive personality and strong sense of pride, I am also quite frank and crass with my words. Given that I work in workplaces with Asian cultures, I have almost always hurt the feelings of someone I’ve worked with for the first time.

I admit that being able to speak my mind has a lot of benefits but I don’t want to get used to this way of speaking, especially if it is detrimental to helping the other person understand the kind of feedback I want to give.

This habit may have come from my “leaders have to be right” expectation because I let it get to my head sometimes that I “have the right” to give such feedback beacuse I earned my position in the leadership team.

I have to remember that yes, I might have some feedback for the person that can help them and yes, I am probably correct in my assessment of their performance, but I have to remember that I don’t know everything, regardless of how ever many years of experience I have, and there is still that chance that I can be wrong so I shouldn’t act like a know-it-all when I speak to them.

Approach them kindly and privately, if possible. Live feedback is the best kind of feedback but only if it is welcomed by the other person and if it complements the context. Asking the person what they thought of my feedback after I give it should be a habit I should form and, lastly, asking them for their opinion on how they performed is another way to help them do self-reflection.

I hope this blogpost serves as much of a reminder to you as it is to me. I wrote this primarily for the future me in mind but also so others can see what I think and give me feedback for it. Do you currently feel that you have to bear the weight of being “right” all the time because you’re a leader? Or is this preconception just something younger me came up with?

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