As likely to be wrong as to be right

Humility, transparency and the need to acknowledge uncertainty

Sir David Bell

Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive, University of Sunderland, formerly Permanent Secretary at the Department of Education, and Chief Inspector of Schools

Although no two situations are ever the same, most of us draw upon previous experience when confronting a crisis. But the pandemic has been of a different order altogether.

Both the nature and scale of coronavirus is unlike anything else we have seen in our lifetimes. So while some lessons from the past apply, much is being learned as we go.  

Yet beyond the here-and-now of individual decisions that leaders have to make, a deeper truth is emerging. What we are doing is just as likely to be wrong as it is to be right.

If that is true, what are the consequences present and future?

Admit we could be wrong

First, we should openly admit that the decisions we make could turn out to be wrong, and that may be apparent very quickly. Most of us find it hard enough to admit we are wrong at the end of a long process. How much harder it is to start off by acknowledging that might be the case.

That leads to a second implication that we should move on, and quickly. If we made a bad call at the beginning of the crisis, or we have mis-stepped along the way, change course fast and don’t make ‘sorry’ the hardest word.

Third, acknowledge to yourself and to others that making a bad call does not make you a bad person. It is too easy to impugn people’s motives when they are trying to do their best.

In a sense, we are all adrift without a compass. So cut yourself, and those around you, a bit of slack. Not knowing everything does not mean that you know nothing.

Of course, none of this will matter if you are not, fourthly, seen to be completely honest and transparent about what you are facing.

You are planning in a fog, of course, but do not think that keeping the hard, and harsh, realities hidden will help. You might – again – be wrong in your assessment but sharing the facts and your best judgement at the time is crucial.

Fifth, there is wisdom in the crowd. If you think you are finding your way, then so is everyone else. Seeking counsel, advice and good ideas from everyone else – and not just the senior team around you – is really important. And what people are feeling is as important to understand as what they are saying.

Listening to as many people as possible

You are not absolved from making decisions, as more than ever in a crisis, people want to trust their leaders to act wisely, even if that means you have to make sometimes lonely decisions.

But listening and talking to as many people as possible will help others to see the range of possibilities and that the right/wrong line is a very narrow one to walk. 

All of the above requires humility, confidence-in-self (which is not the same as bombastic self-confidence), insight and empathy. For some, these attributes will come naturally as they define who they are, both as people and as leaders.

For others – and, perhaps, the majority, given what we expect of leaders – this might be a harder ask.

But it is not impossible, not least because virtually everyone feels exposed in this crisis, re-evaluating their whole outlook on life; everything from how they define themselves to how they behave. If there was ever a moment to do things differently, this is it.

And not just for this moment but for the future too. Perhaps in our desire to be seen as decisive and authoritative, we have deluded ourselves and others about the degree of certainty there is – never mind the degree of certainty we feel – when making big decisions.

You might think that prefacing everything you say and do with the words, What I am doing is as likely to be wrong as it is to be right, is hardly inspiring or reassuring.

Presumably too, you have been appointed on the basis of being trusted to make the right ‘calls’ when the time requires it, and continue in post because that has been demonstrated to be the case.

If that is the case, then you have the permission to be frank about the uncertainties you face as a leader, particularly when faced with a major decision where it is impossible to know which way it will go.

Substance always matters over ‘spinning the positive’

You are not a prophet even though too many leaders act as if they were blessed with charisma, in the original religious sense of meaning of having a gift or power bestowed upon them from above.

I have always sought to be open and frank but the pandemic has reinforced in my mind that substance always matters over merely ‘spinning’ the positive, uncertainty is part of the human condition, and listening, listening, listening is at the heart of effective leadership. The task now is to ensure that these are actions that should dictate all of my forward behaviour and are not simply for an ‘emergency’ period.

I have written this piece principally because it reflects my experience of the crisis so far. But I also know that, at the centre of government – all governments – sit people who think of themselves as the masters of the universe, scathing of how others have done things previously and supremely confident in their intellect and ability.

It is not a counsel of despair but rather one of hope to say, They are as likely to be wrong as they are to be right.

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