Why The Best Leaders Encourage Disagreements

I recently listened to an interview on the Tim Ferriss podcast with presidential biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin. One particular story caught my attention: when elected to office, President Lincoln filled his cabinet with his political adversaries, namely the men who ran against him in the contentious 1860 election.

Though it seemed counter-intuitive, even at that time, Lincoln explained that is decision hinged on the idea that the country needed the strongest, most capable men to lead it. Collectively, these men with opposing perspectives could offer that. Just because they had been bitter rivals during the election, it didn’t justify depriving the country of their talents and leadership.

If we fast forward to 2018, this approach to leading a nation could not be more different. Today, many political leaders have surrounded themselves with like-minded followers, demanding blind support. They surround themselves with “yes men” who tell them what they want to hear and reinforce their existing positions and beliefs.

In my experience, the most successful and admired business leaders do just the opposite. They surround themselves with people who hold opposing views and the courage to challenge their superior. The welcome feedback and criticism, and have learned how to harness these insights in support of personal and business development.

For three years, I reported to a brilliant man who encouraged his employees to ask questions, challenge assumptions, and develop new approaches to old problems. In doing so, he fostered a community of critical thinkers and innovators. As his employees rose in the company, he did as well. Further more, he practiced what he preached, continually questioning and challenging the president of the company.

This man was far more concerned with getting it right than always being right. He was comfortable admitting a misstep, and it was often these falterings that led to long-term success and lessons learned. Being given permission to disagree is one of the greatest gifts I’ve been offered in my career.

Ray Dalio, author of the leadership book, Principles, writes about the importance of of building a team that is comfortable with conflict. He also addresses the danger of confirmation bias, which tends to arise when we surround ourselves with people who always agree with us. One of the most valuable and underrated skills is the ability to have a thoughtful disagreement in order to discover what is true.

Dalio proposes a principle for life and business called “believability-weighted decision making,” which is an approach that seeks to lay all ideas on the table, giving more weight to people who have demonstrated repeated knowledge or authority on a subject at hand. Everyone has the opportunity to be respectfully heard, but the rookie needs to earn his accolades before being given the same decision-making power of his superiors.

Like Lincoln, the best leaders find ways to triangulate their view with experienced individuals who are willing to disagree and challenge their closely-held assumptions and beliefs. They put aside their ego in order to raise the probability of the best outcome or decisions.

Anytime you are building a team in your life or business, it’s important to ask yourself, “Am I aiming to surround myself with the most capable men and women, or am I creating an echo chamber of my own opinions?”

To invite dissent into your closest circles is to invite truth into your life. By surrounding yourself with people who do not agree with your management approach or who openly despise your romantic partner, you are opening yourself up to possibilities you never realized possible. When you choose to engage in thoughtful disagreement, you are making decisions that could ultimately determine your legacy.

6 thoughts on “Why The Best Leaders Encourage Disagreements

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  1. Little things like this are why Lincoln is often viewed as the greatest (or at worst, a top three) American President. He cared more about the success of the country as a whole than his own personal success or legacy. I’ve tried to model a lot of what I’ve done as a leader in the mold of selfless leaders like Lincoln. While I recognize that I could never attain his stature in any way, it’s still a good path to set myself on.

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    1. I completely agree. I think even the effort and aspiration to put the group’s well-being before the individual is such a great place to be. In my experience, those individuals who make sacrifices in support of a group tend to help unify the group. This, in turn, fosters further teamwork, improved performance, and a long-term outcome that’s good for everyone. I personally thing it’s a great way to lead.

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  2. This is so insightfully true. It took me a while to get comfortable with handling opposing viewpoints both in business and personal life, but it is exactly these uncomfortable situations that I’ve learned from and grown the most. It’s so easy to rely on “let’s all agree to” but I do now find value in welcoming challenges and disagreements.

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    1. Being a relatively shy and introverted person, I can relate. Yet, similarly, I’ve found that attentive listening, open-minded discussions, and efforts to move through a disagreement to some resolution truly do offer the most opportunity to learn, grow, and even understanding people.

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  3. You bring up a valid point. Definitely something challenging, but something that is good in the long run. I strive for it myself.
    However, there is a difference between having people who will have a discussion/ brainstorm session with you, and people who will just flat out oppose you no matter what the right answer is.

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    1. You make a great point regarding the difference between discussion and dissent. Brainstorming is wonderful, but nothing good comes from two people trying to strong-arm each other. I suppose the key is to surround yourself with open-minded people who are not too attached to their options.

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