Part of learning to live for myself was learning to let go of my obsessive need to be right. When I didn’t quite know who I was, I held on to being smart. I wasn’t ever the handsome one, or the athletic one, or the adventurous one – I was always described as the smart one. When I was young, it was the one thing people called me that had nothing to do with my size – so I owned it. I spent years working incredibly hard to always be seen as the smart one. It’s like it gave me control over the label.
An unexpected but welcome side-effect of the last two years of constant change has been the relief of unburdening myself of that expectation.
When I first started managing other people in a call centre 12 years ago I quickly learned it wasn’t my job to be the smartest person there. In fact, if I was doing my job well I would work hard to attract people who were smarter than me. I surrounded myself with people who had incredible skills – certainly skills far superior to my own in certain areas. My strength was helping them find theirs.
Early on I remember looking at other managers in the industry and seeing them surround themselves with sheep – staff they could corral easily and who would do any task without question and be consistently mediocre. Easy to manage, hard to motivate, and never really exciting. Managers who looked at their staff as a class to teach, instead of a community to lead.
One of my early mentors told me that if I really wanted to test my skills as a strong manager than I should try to create and lead the most difficult team. So, I set out on a task of building a team of the smartest, most technically savvy agents we had in the call centre, and I lead them. It was a huge challenge. They were brilliant people, with a diverse range of skills, and a penchant for questioning my every move. The thing about being surrounded by smart people is they keep you on your toes, and they keep you questioning and learning. They taught me that great managers aren’t just problem solvers, they’re process builders – because process is what empowers everyone on the team to solve their own problems.
Leading that team was my business school. In two years they taught me what it takes to be an engaging, dynamic leader. They demanded it of me. In the end, managing them was easy and leading them was great fun. I keep a picture of that team in my office to this day to remind what we were able to accomplish together when I first learned I didn’t need to be the smartest one. I didn’t need to do it all, or even know how to do it all. Again my boss told me that my strength was helping them find theirs.
It’s only been these last two years though that I realize the lesson I learned professionally I never applied personally. In my own life, I held on to my need to be the smartest and to always be right. To win. To debate. To argue. To slaughter the other person’s ideas until they just agreed with my own. Not in a mean way, usually not even angry. It was worse than that. It was with a smile. I would hack and hack away at your wrong ideas until out of nothing but desperation you told me I was right. And then that was that. I had won! I was right! Where was my prize?
It’s not my job to correct other people when I disagree with them – because I know that I am capable of being wrong. I was a smart guy when I weighed 460 pounds but at the time I thought living that way was right. I thought eating as therapy was right. I thought that hiding who I am was right. I thought that denying my reality was right.
I was smart and I was wrong. We all have the capacity to be wrong.
Leaders accept that right and wrong aren’t black and white. Compromise has become a dirty word, found somewhere in the grey between the two. But in the grey is where discovery and opportunity are found. It’s where leaders are built and where stubborn people crumble. In the grey is where people find the courage to imagine a different way.
Every change worth making starts with the sliver of doubt that maybe you’ve been wrong right up until this moment. That right there is how being wrong and being smart can both exist at the same time.