“Certainty and Doubt” sets up an age-old argument on the nature of leadership. The conventional wisdom suggests that any leader who does not project absolute certainty in his or her decisions or convictions is doomed. “Never blink, never waiver,” is one of those powerful, inspiring phrases that many people would say defines a great leader.
But both common sense and a basic knowledge of history (political and business) should remind us that smart leadership in reality demands a dynamic balance of certainty and doubt. The literature is filled with stories of leaders who made full-steam-ahead choices and ran smack into icebergs. Conviction is critical. Trepidation can show weakness. But unwavering, foolhardy conviction is not the path to successful leadership either.
In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey tells a story illustrating that certainty in leaders is not always a virtue. Two battleships were at sea on maneuvers in heavy weather. The captain of the lead battleship was on watch as night fell. The ships were traveling through patchy fog that made visibility poor. Then, the lookout on the wing of the bridge reported,
“Light, bearing on the starboard bow.”
“Is it steady or moving astern?” the captain called out.
“Steady, Captain,” came the answer, confirming that they were on a dangerous course.
The captain called to the signalman, “Signal that ship, tell them we are on a collision course, advise you change course 20 degrees.”
“Advise you change course 20 degrees,” came the reply
The captain said. “Send this message: ‘I am a captain. You change course 20 degrees.”
“I’m a seaman second class,” was the reply. “Advise you change course 20 degrees.”
Now furious, the captain spat out, “Send this message: ‘Change course 20 degrees. I’m a battleship.”
Back came word from the flashing light, “I’m a lighthouse.”
The question for a Change Leader must be: How do I balance the type of strength and certainty needed to inspire followers, while allowing the seeds of doubt necessary to avoid disaster?
In fact, the theme of this information may be the most important in developing the habits of a true Change Leader. Fortunately the answer to striking the right balance between certainty and doubt is not found in being “weaker”—it’s actually found in being smarter and stronger.