A Future Leadership Basic; when strong views, weakly held prevail

A  Future Leadership Basic; when strong views, weakly held prevail

I am always fascinated by those that make the correct decisions under pressure.  How the most capable constantly learn to adapt their decision making model to suit the needs of the current situation and learn how to develop/adapt to changing environments.  They are also aware of their natural motivational biases and can mitigate those biases. A few examples are as follows:

  • group think
    • seeking information that supports your existing point of view
    • seek consensus too early or conform to group opinion
    • siege mentality – illusion of invulnerability
  • comfort zone
    • failing to define problem in more ways than one.  (diversity of thinking)
    • setting out to solve wrong problem because  you have created a mental framework for your decision (unknown – unseen?)
    • relying on ‘rules of thumb’
  • motivational bias
    • failing to collect key factual information because you are too sure of your assumptions and opinions
    • making choices in a way that justifies past, flawed choices (sunk costs)
    • seeking information that supports your existing point of view
  • anchoring
    • giving disproportionate weight to the first information you receive

Our ability to understand complex information and make a decision is difficult in the best of times but what happens when we move into a different field of endeavour. Will our decision making model hold up or do we have to have/learn a new model?  My movement from the military to business has allowed me to examine this in detail. My reflections are that a decision making model that is robust, flexible, creative and allows you to adapt your thoughts to the needs of the situation is dependent on having strong views that are weekly held.  I liked Richard Cross thoughts on this.

Richard Cross.

There’s no doubt a surfeit of self-belief is critical to success in sports. But how important is it in other environments? The data I have from my research concerning elite sportspeople supports the importance of self-belief …..almost. There appears to be a difference between those in the top percentile who have taken self-belief to virtuoso extreme levels and those who are at world champion level who have high self-belief but are more grounded and realistic in their self-assessment as well as have core humility and in some cases impressive humanity. For those who have untrammelled and unrealistic self-belief my observation is that their self-belief has helped them achieve to their maximum, though often clouded on occasions and sometimes blinded them to the reality of who they are and how they have achieved. It’s easy to focus on the importance of self-belief – who can disagree! Having said that these people get on in life. In the business world particularly self-belief combined with ‘gaming the system’ and the right sponsors means that some people, sounding somewhat robotic and following all the fashionable management mantras fulfil their talent more than others.

The problem is when the environment and landscape where their talent is applied changes dramatically. When it comes down to it they have an overinflated view of their own ability when out of their comfort zone. This has one main consequence. As Stanford professor Bob Sutton author of Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths & Total Nonsense points out ‘probably the biggest single problem for human decision making is that when people have ingrained beliefs, they will put a much higher bar for evidence for things they don’t believe than for things they do believe.’  Confirmation-seeking bias is what social psychologists call it.  These people with high self-belief are typically extraordinarily stubborn and sometimes highly successful. Often these people don’t appear to have had a strong support network either that can influence them. And what seems to happen is their ‘weak’ network supports and bolsters their world view. Now this is fine when they are at ‘the top of their own game’ but when they make a transition out of the sport not so helpful. Consequently one of my emerging perspectives is that sufficient as opposed to suffocating self-belief is more conducive to continued high level success in the sports world. The business world on the other hand is an entirely different matter. There I have personally observed where excessive self-belief verging on arrogance has lost many companies their market. Observing and being accompanied on calls by product oriented sales managers who apply self-belief and transactional methods to professional services has to be experienced to be believed. Similarly negotiating with purchasing managers stuck in the adversarial relationships of the past and cost as opposed to value focus is a horrific experience. They get short term results …at a cost.

In this connection profiling an individual the other week I came across an insight that stopped me in my tracks vis a vis leadership ability. This individual is to my mind destined to have a big impact. He had an outstanding sports career, recovering from early setbacks and media pressure. In all likelihood he is a captain of industry in the making. I realised that through the nature of our discussion. He had a breadth of skills fuelled by a strong intellect.  He had strong leadership skills; he was empowering, passionate and inspirational. Under pressure he delivered and it was supported by a strong integrity and set of values.  What’s most fascinating about the combination of his leadership style was a highly purposeful and decisive approach yet relatively few fixed views allied to a highly challenging perspective. This person was intellectually gifted and would often get involved in arguments and voice disagreements yet was not dogmatic. This set me off on a quest to identify how many of the leaders and coaches I have profiled exhibited similar patterns of what is generically termed ‘strong views weakly held.’  Not many at all as I discovered. His ratings are along similar lines to four of the most extraordinary (subjectively speaking) individuals profiled- One was an international peacekeeper, another a Nobel prize winning Climate specialist, a third Mr X. now 83.  Mr X negotiated at top governmental level and played his part in contributing to the downfall of communism. With prompting from yours truly he sponsored Romania for the 91 World Cup. The fourth was a specialist in crisis situations amongst his many talents.

Reference to the  term ‘strong opinions weakly held’ date back to  1977  when British historian A. J. P. Taylor once applied for an appointment at Oxford which he did not get, the president of the College concerned said to him sternly: ‘I hear you have strong political views.’ His reply: ‘Oh no, President. Extreme views weakly held.’ The more modern use of the term comes from the futurists. Now these people such as Alvin and Heidi Toffler are fascinating. The term comes from the Palo Alto Institute for the Future where a colleague David Jones (who made a comment ages ago) worked with them in rebranding Xerox in the nineties. This independent, non-profit research group focuses on helping companies make “better, more informed decisions about the future.” They argue that – to deal with an uncertain future and still move forward – they advise people to have “strong opinions, which are weakly held.” They’ve been giving this advice for years. Developed by Institute Director Paul Saffo they see weak opinions as problematic because people aren’t inspired to develop the best arguments possible for them, or to put forth the energy required to test them. It’s just as important, however, to not be too attached to what you believe because, otherwise, it undermines your ability to “see” and “hear” evidence that clashes with your opinions. This is what psychologists sometimes call the problem of “confirmation bias.”

It is also a necessary precursor for planning — the need in an organization to plan for the future while still competing in the present. You never have 100 per cent information, and the best way to come out with a forecast is with rapid and successive approximations of the end point. And it’s sort of the opposite of what we all tend to do; typically we take forever to come to an opinion and then we stubbornly hold on to our opinion in the face of other evidence that we cast out – it doesn’t meet our opinion. The discipline they prescribe is to come to a conclusion, the best conclusion possible, but then to really look for information that proves the conclusion wrong. It goes hand-in-hand with a suggestion that we should “fight as if you’re right, listen as if you’re wrong”. The idea is that as leaders we should fight passionately for what we believe in, but that we should also be prepared at every stage to listen to the opposing view point and change our opinions if we are shown to be wrong.

This reminded me of David Kirk’s (ex World Cup Winning All Black captain in 1997) aphorism that ‘‘it’s fine to have the courage of convictions. It’s also needed to have ‘’the courage to change convictions.’’ In that context now a David a captain of industry in Australia was discussing the impact of the digital revolution on business and the need to thrive in a VUCA world. (That’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous)

‘Strong views weakly held’ is a somewhat paradoxical combination of conviction and circumspection. What strikes me on reviewing the data from my research   is that few leaders seem to adopt this perspective. It’s actually quite rare.  We prefer to concentrate on the inspirational qualities of leadership rather than reality that lies beneath.  Yet it is an essential basic attitude to have as a Chief Executive of a business in an uncertain environment. And isn’t the future more uncertain than ever? You have potentially powerful ideas or opinions that drive you to explore, but you feel little pain at the prospect of being moved off of them (and onto something else) by your reality. In other words, let your ideas at a given moment push you, but don’t base your permanent identity on them.  As Eric Hoffer suggests, ’absolute faith corrupts as absolutely as absolute power’.

This approach seems to be forming the basis of models about sensemaking in the face of ambiguity and threat. It’s also an attribute required of individuals who excel in high risk environments. These are the people who understand and can adapt to the harsh reality of situations. Those you can rely in in a crisis. These are the leaders of tomorrow. ‘Strong views, weakly held’- it’s a future leadership basic.

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