The 1971 Oscar in the Short Subject, Cartoon category went to a piece titled “Is It Always Right To Be Right.” It was directed by Lee Mishkin, narrated by Orson Welles, and written by Warren Schmidt.
The opening words of the film are:
There once was a land where people were always right. They knew they were right and they were proud of it. It was a land where people stated with confidence, “I am right and you are wrong.” These were words of conviction, courage, strength, and moral certainty.
In this fictional land, any attempt at cooperation and understanding were viewed as cowardice and weakness. Everyone was so convinced of their rightness that no one dared to utter words such as, “You may be right” or “I may be wrong.”
The stalemate continued with each side resolute in their rightness until one day, everything ground to a halt. Nothing could be accomplished because no one would listen – much less consider – the position of anyone who might disagree with them.
I love this little film, and if I had my way, every elected official at every level of government from the smallest town to our nation’s capital would be forced to binge watch it until they could recite the words of Schmidt’s parable in their sleep.
The issues were different in 1970, but the behavior was exactly the same. Back then we were concerned with the Viet Nam War, racial equality, and the generational divide. Today the differences are about the role and scope of government; income equality; access to guns; healthcare; immigration; gay rights; and unfortunately still too often, racial equality.
The outcome in a steadfast defense of one’s rightness is on full display with the Tea Party, Occupy Wall St., and Open Carry movements. When people feel disenfranchised, they eventually push back.
And, the impact of our obsession with being right is evident in political campaigns throughout the country. It is almost impossible for a Democrat to be too far left or a Republican to be too far right in any contested primary election. Any acknowledgement of willingness to compromise is viewed as a sign of weakness.
Let me put this another way: Our country will grind to a halt if the purists on the left and the right fail to understand that being moderate is not a sign of weakness. The middle is an actual position that well-intentioned people can occupy and not a character flaw. Leaders on both sides must be willing to say, “You may be right;” “I may be wrong;” and “We both want the same things, let’s figure out how.” Otherwise, we are screwed.
“You Are Always Wrong” Gets Personal
I recently watched a political race in a local community with a history of mostly respectful debate and uneventful elections.
Six people ran for three open seats, and the candidates quickly fell into two opposing camps. The respective visions were very similar. The approaches were different. The opportunity for debate was positive. Expanding a difference in position to an attack on someone’s character or motives is taking the “I am always right” mentality to a dangerous level.
Rhetoric on both sides of the race cast people as “good guys” and “bad guys” based on support for their position. Differences of opinion in how to move the community forward were couched in the language of questionable motives. Character flaws were implied – not by everyone, but by some.
The fact is that I know candidates on both sides of this race. They all stepped up to serve in a sincere effort make the community better the best way they know how.
My disappointment in the tone of the election isn’t based on a naïve desire for everyone to hold hands around the campfire and sing. Acknowledging that others may be right; you may be wrong; or that there is value in working toward a collaborative solution is good business and good governance. No one wins when the victors say, “We won. Get over it.”
There is a Business Application, Too
Government may be the most visible example of the “always right to be right” trap. But, the same behavior occurs in business. Conflicts between departments, divisions, and even teams can devolve into a contest of who is right rather than what is right.
People throw their colleagues under the bus to make themselves look better. They play “gotcha” games with others; they ignore ideas that could make everyone better based on the messenger rather than the message. The result is people protecting and securing their own interests … even to the detriment of the entire company.
What Do You Think?
The willingness to work for the best way rather than always working to have your own way is a sign of leadership maturity. We should demand that from our elected officials. We should expect and develop that in our organizational leaders. The growth begins when we acknowledge that is not always right to be right.