A sense of direction is important in leadership. Waver too often and you’ll find your efforts going in a hundred different directions, to little real benefit. But a sense of direction and a sense of certainty aren’t the same thing.

An over-whelming certainty can poison your leadership style.

Ignoring the Evidence

We’ve all seen them – the politicians and TV preachers, the ones we don’t agree with, whatever our reasons are. We throw our hands up in exasperation as they declare with certainty something we know to be untrue, because we’ve seen the evidence to the contrary.

This is the most obvious danger of certainty – that it blinds us to the truth. Bill Nye and an anti-evolutionary preacher were once both asked during a TV debate what would change their minds about what is true. The preacher said nothing, while Nye said evidence. One of them had been blinded by certainty, while the other was following the scientific process, accepting that we will always be wrong about something, that the answer is to follow what looks most like truth and change our minds when we see evidence to the contrary.

Behind this lies a phenomenon known as confirmation bias. Though observed many times down the centuries by figures such as Greek historian Thucydides and Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, it was first analyzed and labelled by English psychologist Peter Wason in 1960. Many psychologists have since built on Wason’s findings, showing that we are biased towards evidence and interpretations that confirm our existing beliefs. From the information we take in to the way we analyze facts to what we hold in our memory, everything is shaped by this.

Everyone is prone to confirmation bias. It’s a useful shortcut in our subconscious that makes it easier to process the overwhelming mass of information we receive every day. But by giving in to the temptation of rigid certainty we let that bias take over, and risk it fooling us into missing the truth.

We act as if our way of leading is the right one, because to do otherwise is to be without direction. But we should never be so certain that we won’t listen to evidence that could contradict or refine our approach.

Inflexibility

Certainty can lead to inflexibility in strategies. We pick a way of working that we like and stick with it, certain that it is the best. We become invested in our way of working and, if challenged, we will defend it to the hilt.

But this sort of over-certainty is equally harmful. The best way of working depends upon the person and the circumstances. The First World War famously showed that the winning strategy of one generation may not work for the next. A company that cannot adapt to changing circumstances will die – Ford worked out the best way of making cars for his era, but no-one follows his “any color as long as it’s black” approach any more.

Even picking a single way of working for yourself can be dangerous. Not trying different approaches means missing out on the opportunity to find better ways of working. What suits you in the summer, when bright days enliven you, may not work during the dark trudge of winter.

Certainty also kills self-improvement. Anyone who has worked on business improvement has met a leader, whether of a team or a whole organization, who is convinced that their way is best and won’t listen to any other view. They miss out on the chances to save themselves time and effort or to provide better service. Worst of all, they encourage inflexibility in those around them, and can bring progress to a halt.

Flexibility opens you to different options and can get you past repeated impasses through unexpected strategies. Too much certainty kills flexibility.

“A Form of Hiding”

Seth Godin refers to certainty as “a form of hiding”. It shelters us from fear, from doubt, from the pressure of making decisions. Most of all, it’s a way of hiding from the risk of seeing that we were wrong.

But the real risk isn’t seeing that we aren’t working in the best way we could – it’s working sub-optimally without ever realizing it. If you hide behind too much certainty you may ignore the evidence of waste or misdirection in your company. You may miss opportunities to work smarter. Even if you’re working well, you may lose ground to competitors who are working even better.

Have faith in your ideas, but don’t let yourself be blinded by certainty.