Thursday, June 27, 2013

What I Learned in Graduate School . . .

From being “Right”  to being “Effective”
by Michael J. Humara
USC Executive Master of Leadership

I am not sure from where my innate need to be right originated, but I assume that I am not the only one in the workplace that has this compulsion. Often individual action or inaction gives preference to dooming the program for failure rather than risk not being right. Surely successful leaders do not pursue careers in organizations where failure is an acceptable outcome so long as they were right? So how does this idea of being “right” fit in?

 It may be self-evident that a heterogeneous organization where everybody is set on always being “right” is culturally doomed for failure. For high reliability organizations “being right” could be the critical trait for success.  An incorrect technical decision could result in catastrophe and therefore may require heated debate and even refusal to comply with a direction. But as we move through a spectrum from technical specification/practices, to management processes, and leading change the issue becomes messier.

Consider a manager’s statement, “That person will be a good/bad fit in leading that team.” It is highly probable that somebody would disagree with the manager, and both will come up with objective data that supports what ultimately is a subjective decision often ending in contempt. Of course data can be collected after the fact to allow for vindication. There lies the rub.

I propose another angle to view “being right” as a value. A variation of Jim Collin’s Good to Great concept, “Would you continue to be right if it was no longer valuable to do so?” Personal ego may allow some of us to answer yes, but I in the context of an organization it would be impossible to align with the organization if this were that case all the time. How many mission statements include something akin to the following?

To make sure that our employees and management are proven to be right, in all decisions with which they disagree, regardless of the success of the organization.

In fact most, if not all, modern organizations see the value of “being wrong” long before “being right,” and would place integrity and loyalty far above “being right” in any list of organizational values. The desire to be right is a selfish condition where we give priority to our ego above that of the team and the organization.  

In Leading Change: an Argument for Values Based Leadership, James O’Toole argues that effective leadership stems from integrity, trust, and listening.  While this is a very elevated look at effective leadership, our ego could clash with any one of these principles and undercut any foundation we could hope to establish as a leader. So what do we do about it?
Humility jumps out to me as the obvious trait, but easier said than attained. At USC in the EML program, we start with understand the “self” and what our values are. For instance, I categorize myself as one of those who want to be right all the time, yes, the very type of person I am condemning for placing ego above the organization. Digging deeper to what I truly value is not being right, but knowledge and it did not take much analysis to understand the difference between the two. 

The next practice of the USC EML program is essential: Reflection. Reflection is painful and it requires us to take the uncomfortable look at ourselves and challenge our ego with our values. These two practices are at the core of the transition of the individual that desires to “be right” to a leader that strives to “be effective.”

Photo: Michael J. Humara – Executive Master of Leadership (EML) graduate.

To learn how an Executive Master of Leadership (EML) at the University of Southern California (USC) would benefit you in your career or development as a leader, please visit:

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