A humble leader does not hesitate to admit momentary stupidity

Here’s an article I happened on yesterday that contains an excellent piece of advice for company leaders. In an interview with The New York Times, Dominic Orr, president and CEO of Aruba Networks, said the following when asked about the culture of the wireless networking company he runs:

“I also tell people that everybody can be and will be momentarily stupid. I think that in many large companies, a lot of politics arise because somebody makes a statement in a meeting, and then it’s weeks of wasted time and effort because they have to dig in to defend that position, and then politics come into play because they now want to lobby for their position.

“So when I interview key executives of my staff, I tell them that they need to accept that they can be, and will be, momentarily stupid. If they can accept that and be able to say, ‘Oh, I was momentarily stupid; let’s move on,’ then you don’t waste time dealing with that.”

Although Orr talks about large companies, I think this advice is applicable to small organizations as well. I’ve worked in big companies with thousands of employees and in small ones with fewer than 20 people; I witnessed plenty of momentary stupidity by leaders in both settings. What I have almost never witnessed was a leader who was humble enough to admit to a moment of misjudgment.

Why is that? Why is it so hard to admit that we didn’t have our thinking cap on totally straight when we sent our staff off on a wild goose chase?

Think how much better things would be if leaders were willing to humbly say, “Oops, my bad” now and then when the dawn of a new day showed that clearly they weren’t on their best game when they suggested something that was going to waste resources with little or no return on investment.

Not that our society encourages such honest self-judgment. It’s hard to come up with examples of leaders in any realm – be it business, politics, nonprofit, or even religion – who have admitted to instances of momentary stupidity. Do so and you run the risk of being labeled a flip-flopper. Horrors! Nobody wants that.

If you check around on the Internet, you can find some excellent advice about being a humble leader and the benefits that can pay for an organization in terms of team cohesion and motivation. I think the place to start is what Orr suggested, being ready to say, “I was momentarily stupid when I brought up that idea – let’s move on.”

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