It Is Better to Be Clear than to Be Right

I searched on my blog for the post I wrote about the “hard work of clarity.” I thought it would be on the first page or two of results because it must have been recently.

Turns out it was from 2009, after the session that Maddie, Lindy, and I did on how social media changes the way we work (which can be considered the earliest starting point of Humanize). Maddie had suggested that clarity isn’t so hard, and I was pushing back. People are often good at the very high level clarity stuff (boring mission statements), but the real areas that distinguish you as a leader or as an organization remain comfortably fuzzy for us.

Flash forward to today and an interview in Fast Company with entrepreneur Ping Fu (hat tip to Michael Roberto). She made this brilliant point:

It is better to be clear than to be right. A lot of times, I find leaders want to be right and they think being right is what gains respect. I find being clear is what gains respect–if you’re clearly wrong, people can correct you, and if you’re clearly right, people can follow you.

Being right is a huge deal in our culture, inculcated from an early age. I remember (vividly) so many times as a child holding back from expressing myself in school because I was afraid I was not right. Okay, forget “child”–I remember doing that in graduate school too. What a shame. So many opportunities for expression and learning squelched. And it built in me that bad habit, of needing to be right before I share something.

Why is this a problem? In a word, resiliency. The deepest value of clarity is resiliency. Ping Fu talks about the leaders that want respect from being right, but the more I think about it, the more odd that sounds to me. Being right is in the past tense. You are right about something that has already happened. A question that has already been asked. About information that you prevoiusly memorized. About an outcome you correctly predicted. It is static. It is rigid. Being right is that one answer to that one problem that existed in that one context. There is value in all that, of course, but it is limited.

Clarity is resilient. Clarity is emergent and promotes focus. It builds on what was right and brings forward an idea that guides you now and into the future. It recognizes the transitory nature of being right and instead focuses on what matters. I think this is a leadership skill in short supply. Ping Fu’s book is aptly titled “Bend, Not Break.” This should be a mantra of today’s leaders.

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  1. 07.01.2013 at 1:19 pm

    Hi Jamie. Very good insight here. I agree that clarity should be placed above being “right” for strong business leaders. However, I would challenge you to possibly expand on your definition of the sense of “being right” as only in the past. Again, I agree that most leaders (even good ones) typically value this trait of “being right” above clarity. But I see this sense of being right as something that they are thinking of in both the present and the future, not just in the past – i.e. “It’s important that I make the ‘right’ decision now that will hopefully be demonstrated as correct at some point in the future so that my team will see that I make the ‘right’ decisions.” Of course, that doesn’t make it any more appropriate or effective as far as their leadership abilities.

    Thanks for the very thought-provoking insight!

  2. 10.01.2013 at 10:32 am

    I think the need to be right is also at the root of associations’ fear of trying new things. You and I had a conversation about this a while ago, and something you said stuck with me: that we (association execs) don’t fear failure, we fear CRITICISM (from our board, volunteer leaders, members). And what do you get criticized for? Being wrong. Hence the vicious cycle of “we have always done it that way.” Taking a chance on something new (aka “being innovative”) means taking a chance on being wrong. And, to bring it back around to your point, if you’re resilient, you can take the heat of criticism and respond appropriately and in a way that helps the organization learn and grow.