Defensiveness among leaders can have a devastating impact on our ability to lead. Defensive leaders end up hurting themselves because their defensiveness prevents people from telling them the truth and if you don’t know the truth about what others think it is very difficult to lead. I would rather know facts I don’t like than not know them at all.
The root of defensiveness is personal insecurity. The logic goes something like this: “If I am wrong, then I am not a good leader so I cannot be wrong. If I cannot afford to be wrong I will push back on those who think another path is a better one.”
Ironically, in adopting a defensive posture, leaders actually lose credibility with others even though they feel they have preserved it by defending their position. Defensive leaders live with the allusion that they know what people think when in reality their defensiveness leaves them clueless and deeply vulnerable as a result.
When leaders are defensive those they lead talk about them to one another rather to them. It may not be healthy but they have trained their team not to address certain issues. Team members are smart enough to know what opinions they are allowed to share and where they need to keep silent.
The cost of defensiveness is not only that of not knowing what others think but a great loss of intellectual capital. It is in multiple counselors and robust dialogue that we come to the best strategy. In addition, it is in the process of that dialogue that we come to a shared ownership of the strategy. But this requires the ability to engage in honest and forthright dialogue. To the extent that a leader is insecure and defensive, that dialogue will not take place. As Lencioni points out in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, dialogue builds trust while the lack of it generates mistrust.
Over the years I have adopted a principle that I seek to live by: Nothing to prove, nothing to lose. I only need to be right if I have something to prove. If I have nothing to prove I no longer need to be right. Further, I only have something to lose if I’m trying to prove something. If I have nothing to prove, then by definition I have nothing to lose. If leaders understood and lived this principle they would not live with the huge amount of anxiety they live with – anxiety caused by the need to be right – and therefore be a “great leader.”
With an attitude of nothing to prove, nothing to lose, I remind myself when others push back or even attack (it does happen to all leaders) that it is OK. I no longer need to be right, nor do I fear being proved wrong (all of us are at times). I can just be me with great openness to the opinions of others. I do not need to agree with others but I don’t need be defensive with others. In fact, it is through a non defensive attitude that I get the very best thoughts from those on my team and in the organization I lead. It is only through a non defensive attitude that we get the very best intellectual capital and best tackle the problems and opportunities we face.