But what if you’re wrong?

Guest column by Sue Givens, superintendent, El Dorado Public Schools – Kan.

The phone conversation from more than two decades ago is as fresh in my mind as if it were this morning. No principal looks forward to a call from their superintendent reporting a complaint. Even though I was an experienced administrator, I was immediately defensive.

As the superintendent shared the parent’s concern, I offered factual rebuttals, trying my best to remain professional, while fighting a growing anger at what seemed an unfair attack. Finally, after relaying the complete complaint, and after my last argument, the superintendent was silent. Crickets.

After a few seconds that felt like hours, he asked quietly, “But what if you’re wrong?” I was speechless. I had expected his advice, support, even admonition, but I hadn’t expected this question. He closed the conversation, before I could respond, with a simple, “Think about it.”

It caused me to reflect from a different perspective, from the possibility that even though we’ve researched, processed, surveyed, and piloted, maybe we missed something. Maybe we could improve. Maybe we could rethink. And God forbid, maybe we, in all our wisdom, were wrong.

That simple, quiet question haunted me. I’ve found myself applying it throughout my career to concerns that are voiced from students, parents, teachers, colleagues and Board members. As leaders, we assume much ownership for our actions, decisions, procedures and programs. We apply our professional expertise, training and experience. We take it personally, when we are questioned, and we don’t expect to be wrong. But we can be.

As superintendent, I often pose this question, in both individual and group discussions. Asking, “What if you’re wrong?” always requires humble reflection and sometimes requires courageous correction in our constant quest for leadership with integrity.