The Danger of a Defensive Mind

But.

That single word has prevented more learning than all other words. Whatever language you speak as your primary language there is a word comparable to “but” and that word is just as destructive.

But is a defensive word. When you’re in a conversation with someone and your response begins with but, or any form of but like “however” then you have likely not actually been listening to the other person. You’re only waiting for your chance to respond.

“But” indicates a defensiveness to your reply. And that’s almost never good.

Because a defensive mind is closed to possibilities.

Many people in leadership positions fail for the simple reason that they have a defensive mind. They somehow came to the conclusion that they can’t be wrong because they are at the top of the org chart or because they head up their department.

As a young engineer in my twenties I was already considered one of the brightest minds in the new field of Electronic Currency Validation. Some even said I was the best.

I made a terrible mistake when I decided to listen to those who said I was the best. Since I knew more than anyone else I had nothing to learn from anyone. That meant that when someone came up with a new idea that I hadn’t already thought of they must be wrong.

The company I worked for created a new position called “Sales Engineer.” They decided that I should do it because I could explain new and challenging technology better than most.

The “sales” part was very humbling at the beginning because people didn’t respond with the clarity of a microchip or voltage regulator. I learned very quickly that no matter how much I knew that I could be wrong about anything at anytime.

I learned I had a defensive mind and I was using it to prove I knew more than other people. Of course, I thought that required me to prove them wrong in which I took great delight.

Unfortunately it prevented me from learning essential sales and leadership skills like empathy. I mean, why try to see anything from the other person’s point of view when they are so completely wrong.

Fortunately for me along came this woman named Vicki who til this very day is willing to point out to me exactly why and where I’m wrong. Which it turns out is pretty often. 🥴

What about you? How many of your responses in a conversation begin with a “yes but?” If even a few of your responses have a “but” near the front of them I can almost guarantee that you’re listening with a defensive mind rather than an open one.

And defensive minds have a much smaller opportunity to learn.

So before you even begin a conversation with someone set a goal to learn something new from it. This is critically important in conversations with customers or the people you lead.

I’ve grown comfortable with being wrong. It’s actually developed into one of my greatest strengths. Even though I’m comfortable being wrong I hate it. The good thing is that it forces me to learn so I’m not wrong about the same thing again and again. Sometimes, I’m even able to compassionately show someone I was right after all.

That’s far easier to do with an open mind than it is with a defensive mind.

I can’t think of a single good thing that comes from being defensive. It lulls you into thinking you know more than you do. It prevents you from learning. It stops empathy in its tracks.

There is nothing wrong with listening to different thoughts and opinions. There is nothing bad about discovering you may be wrong.

I have seen a hundred times over that there are people who don’t know as much as me but are still smarter than me. And thank heavens for them because they are my only hope of learning new things.

The Most Important Characteristic of Leadership

I have long held that the most vital characteristic of leadership is integrity. Other’s including some who I greatly respect would say the most important characteristic of leadership is good judgment. 

 

I have a hard time admitting I could be wrong about this. It does seem though that lots of people are willing to sacrifice integrity for what they think is judgment that more closely resembles their own. 

 

But it is beginning to appear that those who believe judgment to be the most crucial leadership characteristic may be mistaken as well. That’s because empathy seems to be increasing in importance. 

 

There are currently 462 million variations of the definition of leadership on Google. No matter which one you prefer they all have something to do with people. The definitions say something about motivating, encouraging, teaching, challenging, or building people. They talk about caring and making a difference in the lives of the people you lead. 

 

Every definition of leadership indicates that empathy is a critical characteristic. Perhaps even THE critical characteristic for successful leadership. 

 

There is a great line near the beginning of the all time classic Christmas movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It’s the scene where Clarence the Angel is getting his instructions from Joseph. Clarence is in a hurry to get to earth. He wants to earn his wings by helping George Bailey who is played by the great Jimmy Stewart. But Joseph tells Clarence to stop long enough to learn something about George’s life. Joseph says that if he is going to help George he needs to know something about him.

 

So it is with leadership. 

 

If you’re going to lead others, motivate and coach them, challenge them and make a difference for them then you’re going to have to know something about them. You’re also going to need to be able to see their life from their point of view. 

 

That’s empathy!

 

Empathy grows in importance as technology continues to push the human element out of relationships. If you lose sight of the humanness of the people you’re supposed to lead then you lose the ability to actually lead them at all. 

 

So what is the most important characteristic of leadership? Here’s the real answer… if you lack integrity then you lack the ability to lead. Without integrity people will not trust you and if they can’t trust you they simply will NOT follow you. 

 

If you have integrity but lack sound judgment then you will be an honest failure but a failure as a leader all the same. If you have no empathy for the people you lead then you’ll likely find that even with integrity and excellent judgment there will be no one following you. People will know that while you may care about them, as you would any “asset” in your organization, you don’t actually care for them. 


I suppose what I’m discovering late in my own leadership journey is that it doesn’t really matter which leadership characteristic is most important. If you struggle with even one of them you’ll have significant challenges when attempting to lead.