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Getting It Right

August 7, 2009

“Choose being kind over being right and you’ll be right every time.” —Richard Carlson

Getting it right represents an ongoing challenge for almost any organization. The “it” and what constitutes “rightness” are often ill-defined though, leading to confusion, misdirection, and often disillusionment.

Pop-theorists tell us managers focus on doing things right while leaders focus on doing the right things.  Another popular aphorism tells to “manage things, lead people.”  In either instance, how we conceive “rightness” can get us into trouble.

In a recent article, Sean Carroll approached this problem from the perspective of the discourse between evangelicals promoting their creationist beliefs and the views of atheists and skeptics who support the theory of evolution and natural selection.  He noted that neither attacking those with opposing views nor getting too cozy with them was a good idea.  In fact, he suggested, the best approach was to choose the most worthy opponents and engage them in a thorough, thoughtful, and respectful dialogue.

He punctuated this argument with a graphical representation of the problem, which he calls the grid of disputation.  In applying this matrix, he suggests avoiding confrontations with crackpots for two reasons.  First, they will not accede to your arguments.  Second, anyone who might be swayed by your appeal to reason may be led to suspect your motives if you become committed to winning the argument at any or all costs.


Satire, sarcasm, and certainly humor all have places in rhetoric and reasonable dialogue.  Effective leaders understand how to use these devices to do the right thing in the right way at the right time.  When it comes to dealing with difficult people or challenging ideas, however, this does not suggest an effective leader must engage much less win over zealots or crackpots.

Your friends do not need to be convinced.  Your enemies don’t care.  And those inclined to respond to your reason and rhetoric will respect your argument more if it is delivered with a degree of compassion that matches your commitment to the ends you seek.

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