“In environments characterized by complexity, uncertainty, and dynamism, it’s impossible to have all the answers. If you want to succeed, you must be prepared to change your mind.”
Leaders are often expected to conform to the strong leadership archetype displaying confidence, conviction, consistency, and persuasiveness. In Persuadable: How Great Leaders Change Their Minds to Change the World, Al Pittampalli shows how influential leaders achieve remarkable results by rejecting the traditional archetype. Through example, he illustrates how persuadability, ability to change their mind when provided with new evidence, is the hallmark of effective leaders.
As followers, we may reject leaders who freely admit they do not have all the answers. How do we know where they stand? We may question a leader that displays humility, who is modest and open to suggestion and willing to change their mind. However, a leader that second-guesses plans and is prepared to accept challenges to ideas exposes weaknesses, resulting in better decisions and better serving those they lead.
Pittampalli was inspired to write Persuadable as a result of his experience. He wrote Read This Before Our Next Meeting and received lots of praise and some valuable criticism. He honestly evaluated his book in consideration of the criticism and made substantial changes as a result. He updated his ideas and produced a far more compelling plan that helped leaders do their jobs more efficiently. The changes then became a part of his updated book. He shares his hard-won knowledge and strategy in Persuadable.
The Big Idea
"Sometimes the greatest acts of integrity involve being inconsistent — especially when circumstances change, new information comes to light, or mistakes have been made. And because the world is changing fast, now more than ever, leaders need to be big enough to embrace inconsistency when required."
Pittampalli references Phillip E. Tetlock’s work which is discussed in more detail in Superforecasting. Those forecasters who were able to make the best predictions were those who changed their mind often. They did not do it haphazardly: they examined the evidence on a regular basis and developed a more accurate opinion over time. We rarely have all the facts and the ability to evaluate them accurately from the start. As a leader ignoring facts as they present themselves may produce an image of decisive leadership but give disastrous results because the decision followed an inaccuracy.
Integrity and honesty may be rare in leadership. Perhaps that is because we distrust leaders who are honest and change their mind when presented with new evidence. We call it flip-flopping. If we change our belief because the pursuit of accuracy is more important than any other ideal, it is a display of integrity, and we should regard it as a strength rather than a weakness.
Use Bayes Logic to Incrementally Update Beliefs
"However, what’s most important for Persuadables is the realization that we should be incrementally updating our beliefs with evidence. If we do, we have a powerful mechanism to develop better and more accurate beliefs about the world."
Thomas Bayes was a theologian who had an interest in theories of probability. He performed a thought experiment where one would imagine a level surface onto which a ball was rolled. Without looking at the ball, one would guess its location. Its position could be determined by rolling new balls and receiving a simple description of where the ball was compared to the new ball. With every new ball, one could better predict the position of the ball. Over time Bayesian Analysis was formalized, and Pierre-Simon Laplace turned Bayes Theorem into a mathematical formula. Using Bayes logic does not require us to memorize Laplace’s formula. It’s more practical to simplify and use the Three Strikes Rule.
Bayes Analysis consists of three parts: the prior, evidence, and posterior. The prior is the original belief. The evidence is the objective information. When the two are combined it produces an updated belief, or posterior, which becomes the new prior. The process then repeats. The Three Strikes Rule simplifies the logic. If you come across evidence that challenges a view you have confidence in think of it as strike one, more evidence is strike two, and at strike three you change your opinion. Incrementally updating our beliefs gives us a more accurate perspective and increases the effectiveness of our decisions.
Remember to Consider Other Perspectives
"All leaders, and people in power, have the ability to excel at understanding what the people around them are thinking, accurately identifying their positions and interests, if they’re willing to make it a priority. In essence, it’s a choice that leaders can make."
It is natural for us to surround ourselves with information that supports our perspective. We must choose to seek others views. To obtain objective information that we were not aware of initially and that challenges our point of view we must actively solicit the opinion of others, particularly those who oppose our favored point of view. Even if we objectively know we should seek out opposing views, it is easy to dismiss the contradictory information. To avoid this pitfall use a simple, well-proven method for forming an instant habit, ask, “When and where will I do X.”
Decide when and where you will actively seek an understanding of a variety of viewpoints. For instance, you choose to listen to a radio show on your way to work that opposes your views and decide to consider the alternate view. You ask for the viewpoint of colleagues at lunch. You plan to read a newspaper column written by a journalist that opposes your opinion. Making a commitment in advance to seek others perspectives means we will not forget or miss the opportunity.
We spend lots of time and money investing in our future success. Success is often elusive because our world is full of complexity and uncertainty. We invest in our ideas but rarely invest in changing our mind. Often the way we think determines our success. Learning to understand what others believe and thoughtfully updating our opinion does not cost extra time and money, but it may prevent failure. Although we may initially mistrust flip-floppers, inconsistency is sometimes the highest form of integrity. Updating our beliefs incrementally gives us a more accurate perspective than forming an initial opinion and sticking to it. We may initially dismiss information that opposes our favored view and need to make an active habit of seeking new perspectives. When we decide to become more flexible and open to criticism, we become more powerful as leaders.