by Gael O’Brien

A recent short video of a TED conference presentation by Kathryn Schulz talked about being wrong.

Kathryn Schultz

Kathryn Schultz

Schulz, who wrote Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, said at TED that we hate to be wrong; we do all we can to avoid thinking about our being wrong. We think that getting something wrong means there is something wrong with us: “so we insist we are right; it makes us feel smart, virtuous, and safe.”

The problem, she points out, is the internal sense of rightness we experience is not reliable. “Trusting too much in feeling you are on the right side of anything can be dangerous.” She illustrates her point by saying that is how we got a torpedoed economy and 200 million gallons of oil dumped into the Gulf of Mexico.

Her TED talk has other rich ideas about being human and stepping outside our “rightness,” but her concept of “error blindness” made me think of  a number of examples where being so wedded to one’s own sense of reality had backfired. Unfortunately for leaders, their backfires make headlines.

I was reminded of Renault’s espionage case; Alan Greenspan’s dogged devotion to a market theory; a county politician’s belief about what isn’t offensive; and how the Dodgers franchise has been jeopardized by divorcing owners’ sense of personal privilege.

Renault's Carlos Ghosn

Renault's Carlos Ghosn

Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn wrongly accused three employees in Renault’s electric car program of selling information to the Chinese based on what the French government called a mishandled internal investigation. The problem for Ghosn was compounded by his defending the spy claims in an interview on a national French television channel saying he had “certainties” about it.

Ghosn publicly apologized and, with those senior executives involved in the investigation, waived 2010 bonuses and 2011 stock option entitlements.  They endured a public reprimand by the French government, Renault’s largest stakeholder. A security agent was later arrested for fraud and the company is revamping its security operation.

For former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan it was about the certainty of his view on how markets behave. He was forced to admit to the House Oversight Committee that his world view, considered by critics to have led to the economic meltdown, turned out to be flawed.

Then there are the everyday convictions which demean others. Orange County (CA) Republican Party official Marilyn Davenport sent an email message to her mailing list with President Obama’s face superimposed over a chimpanzee saying “Now you know why — No birth certificate.” County Republican Party Chair Scott Baugh, one of the recipients, asked for her resignation; thus far she has refused.

At the press conference this week, she apologized to anyone she offended, saying she hadn’t realized how much it would offend people: “I offended the black people” and “I humbly receive your rebuke.” She apparently ruled out that those not African America could also be offended.

Frank McCourt

Frank and Jamie McCourt

The divorce war of Dodger owners Frank and Jamie McCourt is a cautionary tale of what happens when leaders make it about their right to lead rather than how they are leading.

While they have played out their tug of war over team ownership, media criticism has escalated the past 18 months over their Dodger stewardship, divorce filing revelations about lavish personal spending, and the franchise’s financial integrity. is reporting that the IRS has begun an investigation of the McCourts.

This week, Major League Baseball (MLB) Commissioner Bud Selig announced the MLB was seizing control of the Dodgers and would appoint a trustee to oversee its operations. Frank McCourt’s brief response said the Dodgers were in compliance with MLB guidelines. In other words, as bad and public as this drama and increased debt have become, McCourt isn’t budging from the rightness of his position.

So with these illustrations and more you can think of, what can we do about hating to be wrong?

The most basic is to accept it is part of being human and figure out how to mitigate our vulnerability through our receptivity to information that may be in conflict with our world view. The more we stay open to the possibility we could be wrong, the more likely we are to get beyond our own “rightness” and experience a larger reality.

It is really akin to developing an entrepreneurial spirit to constantly question, test, and have a world view that is organic, not fixed; connecting rather than isolating.

As to the minds that create racist responses or narcissistic entitlement, being “wrong” may feel especially frightening so the control they impose makes “error blindness” more pronounced, their internal sense of rightness more fallible, the potential consequences of being wrong more dire, and ethical leadership more implausible.

Gael OBrien_ID_CropGael O’Brien is a Business Ethics Magazine columnist. Gael is a thought leader on building leadership, trust, and reputation and writes The Week in Ethics, a weekly column where this article was first published.

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