Getting Defensive

A few years ago I was speaking at a small cultural intelligence training event in the Detroit area that contained administrators, teachers, parents, and community trustees.

I don’t know if you have ever been in the ‘zone’ before, but I must tell you I was there.

I felt inspired, energetic, and was making an incredible connection with the group.

I was off script, I was free-styling, I was doing my thing.

And then IT happened.

In the process of articulating a point, I used the term “crusaders”.

I think the exact phrase was “..crusaders for justice.”

I don’t quite remember the context.

Almost immediately, a Muslim woman in a hijab rose to her feet after raising a hand.

She didn’t wait for my acknowledgment.

With a calm tone she said, “I have a huge problem with your last statement.”

I was completely taken aback.

A problem with something I said?


Keeping my professional cool, I responded.

“Yes. What statement did you have a problem with?”

With a quiet determination she answered back.

“Crusaders. You said crusaders. Do you know the history behind that word?”

Now I was shocked. I was angry.

I could feel my face getting hot.

Thoughts rushed in my head like, “Who does she think she is? Doesn’t she know I’m in charge of this gathering? Aren’t I the expert? OF COURSE I KNOW THE HISTORY BEHIND THAT WORD! THAT ISN’T WHAT I MEANT! WHAT I MEANT WAS…”

I wanted to power up, get defensive, put this lady in her place.

But then at the last minute I realized, I was dead wrong.

So instead of powering up, I powered down.

So in front of everyone I said,

“You know what? You are right.

While being hurtful wasn’t my heart, I can completely relate to where you are coming from.

Though I haven’t had the same experience, I do know what it like to feel diminished by the unthinking words of others.”

The atmosphere of the room completely changed.

“I’m very sorry.”

It went from uncomfortably tense, to completely open.

My impromptu instructor who I initially mistook as my accuser, smiled and nodded.

“Thank you.”

She sat down and we had an amazing rest of the day.

By powering down, I powered up.

By being influenced by another, it strengthened my influence with others.

When it comes to successfully navigating different cultures and experiences as a leader there will undoubtedly be mistakes made.

But defensiveness is never the answer.

It shuts dialogue down.

When we listen and learn with humility, the possibilities are endless.

Sometimes you have to get it wrong to get it right.

As I recount that experience there are 3 Actions to exercise:

  1. Listen Deeply: Most talk. Few Listen. But we can’t grow if we don’t know.

  2. Learn Diligently: Be a Student. Let others teach you from their unique life’s journey.

  3. Lead Differently: The Best Leaders reject defensiveness and embrace humility.

Julian Newman