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Doubt: a cure for know-it-alls

by on
in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

Leadership gurus say leaders must be self-assured and unflinching.

That’s nonsense, says science writer, blogger and all-around big thinker Joel Achenbach. The rallying cry for our times should be “Give doubt a chance,” he says.

“Certainty-mongering,” as he calls it, is bad for both leaders and followers. Business and government today, he says, are full of leaders who never express doubt. They operate as though failure is not an option when actually, it should be.

Leaders, Achenbach says, should have a Plan B.

“We need to rehabilitate doubt and uncertainty and recognize them as tools for cutting through mushy notions and wishful thinking,” he says. “We need to stop elevating decisiveness over intelligence in the list of political virtues. We need leaders who think more like scientists and know that knowledge is provisional. We need to learn how to think again.”

Yes, it’s true that human beings value confident leaders. Achenbach cites a professor at Princeton who has shown that people will decide whether someone looks competent in just a tenth of a second. That’s scary.

To curb this impulse, he says, review the principles of critical thinking:
  1. Ask questions.

  2. Define the problem.

  3. Examine the evidence.

  4. Critique your assumptions.

  5. Substitute reason for emotion.

  6. Don’t oversimplify.

  7. Consider other points of view.

  8. Tolerate uncertainty.
Achenbach observes that doing all this would get you fired from many jobs because asking questions is considered a waste of time.

Approvingly, he points out that leaders used to be comfortable with uncertainty and doubt. On the eve of D-Day, Gen. Eisenhower wrote a statement taking blame for the invasion’s failure. And in Renaissance England, jesters were allowed to poke fun at the king, injecting a little doubt into the court’s pompousness.

Have you had your doubt today?

—Adapted from “Three Cheers For Nervous Hand- Wringing,” Joel Achenbach, The Washington Post.

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