Red Pen Leadership

By Nick Wright

Updated Over a Week Ago

Minute Read

A colleague asked me for feedback on an important paper she had written for the board. She was due to present that evening, so time was short. As I glanced through the paper, I saw error after error in spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

Without thinking, I picked up the nearest pen on my desk and, intending to be helpful, started to make corrections. 15 minutes later, the paper was covered in red ink.

She walked across to my desk and glanced over. I saw the pain in her eyes.

How I wished I had paused first, asked what feedback she would find most useful, and used a blue or green pen instead.

Red Pen People

On this critical theme, I heard a friend talk today about ‘red pen people.’ Am I a red pen person? Does my zeal for perfection undermine others? Could the satisfaction I gain from spotting gaps and errors leave others feeling incompetent, demotivated, or insecure?

At my worst, do I risk inadvertently pulling others down to lift myself up?

I have pondered these ethical questions for some years now in an attempt consciously to choose and develop my stance, not simply to operate in my default mode, and to avoid behavior that could prove damaging or derailing.

Red Pen Leaders

You may have met one. You may have been one. Red pen leaders seem only to notice the deficit, the failure, the mistake, the thing that’s missing, the what could or should have been better.

They zoom in keenly on red RAG ratings, over-enthusiastically on lower scores, and take delight in issue-seeking.

The red pen leader’s motto is, “Every silver lining has a cloud.” And they say it with a grin. What-went-well and Even-better-if become What-went-wrong and Don’t-do-again.

They can be great problem-solvers. But the effects on people around them can be draining, diminishing, and demoralizing.

Red Pen Cultures

Red pen cultures tend to be cautious, defensive, unhealthily-political and risk-averse. They’re often characterized as blame cultures.

I worked with one organization that needed and aspired to become far more innovative. And yet, when asked in focus groups, its staff said, “There’s no chance.”

Curious, I asked, “Why?” They responded, “Nobody here is willing to put their head above the parapet.” Again, I asked, “Why?” The response was, “If they do, they will get their headshot off.”

It transpired that leaders there were perceived as always expecting near-perfect results and were completely unwilling to tolerate failure.

Red Pen Erasers

5 fields of inquiry have helped me address my own red pen risks:

  1. My Christian beliefs focus positively on gifts, talents, and releasing potential
  2. Great leadership role models I’ve known who see the best in people, make them feel amazing and enable them to achieve the near-impossible
  3. Solutions-focused work that addresses what we want rather than what we don’t
  4. The appreciative inquiry that pays attention to what’s going well and builds on it
  5. Strengths-based practice that affirms what we – and others – are good at.

Oh, and I no longer have a red pen on my desk!

What Do You Think of Red Pen Leadership?

If you have ideas you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Nick Wright
Nick Wright
Nick Wright is a qualified and experienced psychological leadership coach and organisation development (OD) consultant who works in the UK and internationally. He is an experienced leader and a Fellow of the UK’s Institute of Training & Occupational Learning. Check his site at
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