In response to some of my advice / commentary, a reader writes:

“I question the, ‘it’s OK to be frequently wrong, but never in doubt,’ advice if you want to remain in a position of power within an organization. If you make 100 mistakes, but you demonstrate confidence in your actions and keep plowing along making mistakes, are your going to be OK?

I think you should learn from your mistakes and be wrong less frequently. Even if you show confidence that you are correct, others in the organization will lose confidence in your ability and stop following you. If you continue to plow ahead never in doubt, it indicates that you are either, incompetent, or out of touch with the reality of local control.”

SC Response
Excellent questions and points. Now, let’s talk. First, the proverb: “Great Principals are frequently wrong, but never in doubt.” This is a fundamental leadership practice and a critical nuance that even Fullan writes about. It recognizes the following duality: In complex and dynamic environments, as a leader you are forced to make decisions with incomplete information. When you do this, you will often decide wrong. If you wait too long, you will miss opportunities, also wrong. If as a leader, I know that there is a chance that my decision is wrong, and I let my team get a whiff of that, it will effect their morale and performance. If they know that I am completely confident, then they can be completely confident.

Two quick sayings that support this (both from Todd Whittaker).

1. When the principal catches a cold, the staff catches pneumonia; and

2. When you are the leader and someone asks you how things are going, the answer is always either, “Great,” or “Just like we planned.” Any other answer is a detriment to you, your team and the organization.

Now, if I know that I am frequently wrong, that means I always have to be scanning the environment, confirming data and listening to my team. That way, I can frequently adjust to maximize the effectiveness of the actions of the team. I view “frequently wrong,” as “constantly aware, aggressive and flexible.”

So you ask, “If I make 100 mistakes, yet remain confident, is that OK?”

To which I answer, it depends on who catches the mistake and when it is caught. If you and your team catch most of the mistakes early, you will fix them before anyone on the outside even knows that there might be an issue. It is amazing what you are able to figure out once you know for certain what does not work. We are in agreement, we should learn from our mistakes, but if I make 100 action oriented mistakes and you make just one, it won’t be long before I’m 100 times smarter than you are. This is one reason why the biggest leaps in the quality of our craft are now coming from schools that serve low SES students. Just to survive, the staff from those schools are forced to try and learn from their mistakes. Coasting is a career killer.

Which comes to where we disagree, you write, “If you continue to plow ahead never in doubt, it indicates that you are either, incompetent, or out of touch with the reality of local control.”

When I walk onto a campus that is in crisis, if I am not supremely confident in my ability (which I am) to get that campus turned around rapidly, in order to help students and save careers (which I do), that is a dead school walking.

Again, great questions and points, keep them coming!

Think. Work. Achieve.

Your turn…