A few weeks ago, I stood on the edge of a tall, craggy rock with waves crashing dramatically around me. Three or four feet away, surrounded by foamy ocean surf, rose an even taller, craggier rock. The sun was hot, the air refreshingly cool. I was enjoying some much needed downtime in Seychelles, and I’d climbed the rock because I wanted photographic evidence for my six daughters back home in California.
It occurred to me that it’d look even better if I could somehow make it to the second, more impressive rock, so I immediately set about trying to figure out how. I noticed a series of stones between the two that might serve as a sort of bridge; the problem was that my current perch was too slippery to simply climb down. I’d have to jump.
I was nervous but determined. I felt strong — athletic. Any doubts that I had were overridden by a sudden surge of confidence, which instructed me to just go for it already.
Then I heard my wife of almost 17 years, Rachel, who was filming from the shore, say:
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
The video evidence of the disaster that followed will never see the light of day. (Suffice it to say that I didn’t quite reach the second rock.) Back at the hotel that night, as I lay in bed contemplating my painfully gashed leg, battered body, and bruised self-esteem, it occurred to me that there was probably a leadership lesson in here somewhere.
I could think of my accident in one of two ways. The first was that my loving wife had fatally undermined my confidence at the moment of truth; otherwise, I’d have landed nimbly as a cat. The moral for aspiring business leaders is: Be bold. Don’t listen to naysaying voices. Believe in yourself, and success will inevitably follow.
The second perspective was that Rachel had asked precisely the right question. At nearly 40 years of age, and not quite in my svelte prime, I should have understood that assaulting the second rock was a less-than-stellar idea. In fact, I probably had understood it. What I’d taken for confidence was actually bravado. I knew I was talking myself into a bad deal, but by then it was too late to retreat.
After carefully considering the available evidence for a millisecond, I chose door number two. In my experience, leadership isn’t always a case of boldly preceding others over dangerous terrain. Often, it’s a matter of listening to all sides and thoughtfully accepting the best advice. Did I take time to listen to input from all directions as I ran my business? Did I value other points of view to the extent that I allowed them to alter outcomes?
In my experience, leadership isn’t always a case of boldly preceding others over dangerous terrain. Often, it’s a matter of listening to all sides and thoughtfully accepting the best advice.
In no particular order, here are some thoughts that occurred to me over the next 24 hours as I sat on the beach (poor me, I know) nursing my injured leg instead of scuba diving.
- Having a strong, competitive personality in any walk of life has its advantages, but humility doesn’t usually top the list. Being known for good ideas can cloud your memory of all the many, many bad ones that preceded or even accompanied the former. I’ve gotten okay at not emotionally investing personally in my own ideas over the years, but there are times when my king-of-the-hill side can take charge and propel me toward an unpleasant tumble. These are the times when I need as many people as possible to question my wisdom.
- If Rachel had asked her question 10 seconds earlier, there’s a chance I would have thought it over and concluded that no, monkeying around on slick, hard, uneven surfaces was probably better left to climbers much more agile than myself. I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if she held back like she did because she doubted that I’d take the hint anyway.
- In the future, shaving off even a second or two of that hesitant doubt could mean the difference between a smooth, unmarred shin and the complete opposite. And the only psychological razor at my disposal in this scenario is to train and retrain myself to listen to people. Especially people who know me well. There’s a very fine line between a leap of faith and a leap of hubris, and sometimes you need partners with perspective to help you judge.
- Sparing room in your personality for approachability is exactly that: a conscious decision, followed by practice. When it comes to sports, school, creativity, etc., we accept the relationship between practice and improvement without much fuss. With moral, ethical and temperamental matters, our approach is less precise. If I can train myself to climb, I can train myself to listen.
- Sometimes, you’re going to be wrong regardless. Rachel had a different view than I had as I crouched there precariously with waves crashing into me. A little exercise and training on my part, though, will probably alter her view if we find ourselves in similar circumstances in the future. Being wrong once doesn’t mean that I have to choose the less scenic spot from now on; it just means that I have to prepare better.
Albert Einstein reportedly said, “Any fool can know. The point is to understand.” I’ve known about the virtue of listening since I was a child, but how deep is my understanding? You might ask yourself the same question. Take it from a battered well-wisher: A warning that comes 10 seconds too late is really a prophecy, and it sucks being at the wrong end of one of those.