Proven scientific methods can teach us a lot about leadership. In science, we test an idea until it fails and at that point, we replace it with a new (and hopefully) better idea. It doesn’t mean that the old idea was a bad one – Newton’s laws of gravity is a good example of an old idea that remains useful today, though we now understand that gravity works in strange and different ways. And I think it is fair to say that what we think we know about gravity is still being challenged every day, and these challenges may well result in new insights that could completely alter the way we view the universe. But this approach hasn’t stopped us from using old ideas to launch rockets into space.
Leadership should work in much the same way. We need to have strong beliefs and convictions in order to guide the team with our vision – to put our own metaphorical man on the moon. You can defend strong opinions, and inspire others to follow them. They are necessary for you to have a team vision. But, at the same time, you need to be aware of and respect ideas that challenge your opinion. If evidence presents itself that contradicts what you believe, you need to rethink your ideas – the worst thing you can do is stick by an old idea that has been proven to be obsolete.
This is summed up in the title of George Ambler’s blog post ‘Wise leaders keep strong opinions, weakly held’. Strong opinions are strong because they have been scrutinised and tested, and are most likely formed out of weaker ideas that have been improved. You need to interrogate your ideas to make sure they’re as strong as possible, and make sure you keep validating them regularly. If something (or someone) challenges your beliefs, don’t dismiss it – take it as an opportunity to validate or improve your idea to make it even stronger.
A few weeks ago I wrote about the power of saying ‘Yes’, and how asking questions and listening fosters a much better environment for your team. The only way for you to be sincere when listening to others is to hold your opinions weakly: if one of your team members has no chance of changing your mind, what’s the point in even discussing new ideas?
Next time you make a decision, think about why you went one way and not another. Test your opinion and see if it holds up to scrutiny, and listen to the opinions of others. If it doesn’t hold up, think about what you can do differently to make a better decision next time. And do not be afraid to let go of the ideas you have held for a long time. If it does hold up, don’t think you’re off the hook yet. Seek new ideas that may contradict your own and see if they can improve your own ideas and opinions. You weren’t wrong. You’ve just grown.