Could I Be Wrong?

By Rachel Stewart | October 4, 2018 |

Last week I listened to an interview of Howard Marks, one of the co-founders and chairs of Oaktree Capital and one of the country’s leading financial experts and investors.

The interview was interesting for lots of reasons, but what has stayed with me the most was Marks’s humility.  He and his partner, Bruce Karsh have been very successful for many decades and Marks attributes this to their willingness to ask the questions, “Could he be right?” and the inverse, “Could I be wrong about this?”
 
Marks went on to conclude that one of the keys to his success is his ability to say, “I don’t know.”
 
In a world where posturing and self-aggrandizement and unfettered confidence seem to be the modus operandi, Marks’s philosophy is unique and thought-provoking and has caused me to reflect on what kind of impact this thinking would have on my own leadership abilities.
 

1. The Need to Be Right – Considering another person’s perspective takes a strange combination of humility and bravery—you have to be courageous enough to put down your defenses and meek enough to consider and actively look for the flaws and the discrepancies in your own thinking.  

Marks said he and Karsh would vigorously defend their own positions and then they would separate and go home and think about all the ways the other person could be right.  This kind of humility and respect allowed them to access their best thinking, create profitable outcomes, and avoid many mistakes that other firms made.  
 
I don’t know if it was growing up smack in the middle of six brothers, but I really like to be right.  It was usually 6 against 1 and I had to work hard to be heard and make my points.  If you backed down even a little, it was over.
 
Consequently, the question, “Could I be wrong about this?” is one that doesn’t come naturally.  But as Mark Twain said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” 
 
This doesn’t mean you have to give in to every other opinion in the room.  But it means you need to give it an honest evaluation.  What is right about what they are saying?  What have I missed in my own evaluation?  In what ways could I be completely wrong?  As Marks pointed out: Don’t confuse winning the argument with coming to the best decision.  Applying this one principle can be a powerful catalyst for success.
 

2. The Need to Know – We get conditioned early that there is just one right answer and if you don’t know it, something is categorically wrong with you.  Even raising your hand to ask a question or to have something clarified is a situation fraught with embarrassment and humiliation.  Not knowing is seen as a kind of weakness. 

But Marks maintains that the opposite is true—that thinking you already know is the real weakness and leaves you vulnerable to serious errors.  He said, “People should wake up in the morning and start the day by practicing, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know.’  It’s a great thing to say, and not enough people say it.”
 
The truth is that we live in a world of uncertainty.  We work and do business according to an idea of probabilities and we have our opinions about those probabilities.  But none of us knows how things will actually work out.  By admitting this, you get more power to act and then react more nimbly.
 
“I don’t know” makes room for creativity and collaboration.  It makes space for other opinions, ideas, and input.  Hopefully you have created a team that has shared values but complimentary skills—meaning that it’s not just a team made up of copies of you.  To use that diverse team effectively, especially as a leader, there is power in not knowing all the answers.  
 
3. The Power of Being Wrong – Considering someone else’s opinion as valid as your own and admitting that you don’t know everything are just the beginning. Embracing the power of being wrong can take you to a whole new level entirely.  
 
I recently heard of a company that celebrates failure.  They have huddles where everyone shares something that failed, something that didn’t work, something that went wrong.  And then they all say, “Hooray for Failure!” and cheer for each other.  
 
The power comes after the cheer, of course, because once the failure is out on the table and not hidden and buried and shameful, they can examine it thoroughly and figure out how to avoid the same mistake in the future.  In this way, they work at “trending upward.”  
 
In his interview, Marks pointed out that being wrong is not the end of the world.  He quoted Peter Bernsteen, “The future is not ours to know, but it helps to know that being wrong is inevitable and normal, not some terrible tragedy, not some awful failing in reasoning, not even bad luck in most instances. Being wrong comes with the franchise of an activity whose outcome depends on an unknown future.” 
 
In other words, being wrong comes with the territory.  We are all working in the dark.  The future is unknown and how we get there is too.  It is part of the package for anyone working and growing a business.  It’s been said that failure and success live in the same neighborhood and so it’s likely that along the way, you’re going to visit both of these houses regularly.  The trick is to use those setbacks to trend upwards towards success.  
 
Again, like the other tips, this requires both humility and courage, but it can be done and it can have a remarkable effect on the way your team supports each other and works toward your shared goals.
 
I appreciate the alternative way of thinking about success and leadership that Howard Marks offered.  It was a good reminder of the unassuming and generally unrecognized power of humility in creating great companies and producing excellent work.  I also think this gets to the heart of Actionable Insight’s mission… to create a dialogue from both sides of the claims process.  The foundation’s hope is that “we can transcend the ‘we-they’ dichotomy that often emerges between adjusters and contractors.”  This only works when both sides are willing to come to the table and ask if there is an alternative view point that allows for mutual growth. I’m hopeful it will make a big difference for us as we move forward as we all work to improve the health of our industry.