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How Much Can Leaders Really Change Their Minds?
Game counters depicting leadership

How Much Can Leaders Really Change Their Minds?

It's often said that failure is an essential part of the journey to success, but how much can leaders legitimately change their course of action?
By Arielle Domb
21st Apr 2021

At the start of the century, an electronic engineer drop-out dreamed up a product that would revolutionise the way we work: The Blackberry. 

Mike Lazaridis’ new smartphone charmed the corporate world. With its iconic keyboard, the Blackberry meant work was no longer confined to the office. Individuals could send and receive emails from anywhere, opening up new capacities for work outside the office.

By 2009, the Blackberry accounted for nearly half of the US market. The phone rose to celebrity status, endorsed by public figures from Obama to Oprah. Mike’s invention was untouchable.

Or so he thought.

In the background, a small group of designers and engineers working under Steve Jobs at Apple were beginning to explore new ideas. Was a keyboard still a necessary part of a phone? What if buttons could be removed altogether?

As the Blackberry was enjoying its success, Apple released its first touch-screen phone. Sales skyrocketed. Within its first year, over 6 million iPhones were sold around the world.

But Mike maintained belief in the Blackberry. He was confident that his customers would stay true to what they had loved about the Blackberry in the first place. He refused to pay attention to new features that were appealing to consumers, like the front and back cameras, and, perhaps his biggest mistake of all, he upheld his unflinching support of the keyboard.

By 2014, Blackberry’s market share had plummeted to less than 1%. RIM released its spec-competitive touch-screen phone in 2013, but it was just too late.

The pitfalls of confidence

The demise of the Blackberry has become a well known story in the corporate world, warning leaders what happens when they are too slow to change their minds.

In his book, Think Again, psychologist Adam Grant describes Mike Lazaradis as being in an overconfidence cycle. Mike’s pride in the Blackberry meant that he stuck to his guns as the world around him changed. He looked for evidence to support that he was right (a symptom of the confirmation bias), selecting evidence to support his beliefs, rather than listening to new information. This led him to become more sure of himself, causing the cycle to continue.

This occurs in contrast to the rethinking cycle, which Grant defines as a mark of great leadership. Here, humility causes both doubt and curiosity, leading to discovery. This precipitates yet more humility, setting the cycle in motion.

As human beings, we pride ourselves on staying true to our beliefs. Without confidence in our values and a strong vision of what we want to achieve in the world, we would struggle to rally anyone behind us. We frequently see this in politics, where decisive action is upheld as a sign of great leadership, while stark changes in direction are viewed as a sign of leadership gone awry (think Margaret Thatcher’s famous scorn of U-Turns: “You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning”).

That said, too much confidence in our beliefs can be equally dangerous. Entrepreneurs often persist with strategies that aren’t working when they are better off changing direction, a pattern known as escalation of commitment. When we are too convinced by our own convictions, we risk tunnel visioning, shutting ourselves off from alternate perspectives and the potential for better solutions. 

Thinking like a scientist 

Adam Grant is one of a number of psychologists who vouches for intellectual humility – the recognition of the limits of our knowledge, and the benefit of being able to change our mind. 

To become more intellectually humble, Grant encourages us to start thinking more like a scientist. Unlike politicians, scientists are expected to doubt what they know, treating their beliefs as hypotheses, and testing and retesting their ideas. When we are in scientist mode, he writes, “we refuse to let our ideas become ideologies. We don’t start with answers or solutions; we lead with questions and puzzles”.

Recently, a team of European researchers decided to test the economic value of a scientific mindset. Over one hundred founders of Italian startups took part in an entrepreneurial experiment, where they were assigned to either a “scientific thinking” group or a control group. The former were told to treat their product as an experiment, using customer interviews and rigorous measuring of results to decide whether their hypotheses were supported or disproved.

The results were striking. Those in the control group averaged under $300 in revenue, while those in the scientific mode made over $12,000 in revenue. 

“We typically celebrate great entrepreneurs and leaders for being strong-minded and clear-sighted,” Grant concluded of the study. But in reality, things are different. “The best strategists are actually slow and unsure. Like careful scientists, they take their time so they have the flexibility to change their minds.”

How much change is too much?

The value of flexible leadership has been viscerally played out during the pandemic. Much has been written about the success of female leaders, and their ability to swiftly shift from conventional roles of a leader and adapt to the unprecedented demands of the present.

It has become a truism in the business world that failure is an essential part of the journey to success. But how much can leaders legitimately change their course of action? Is there a limit to how much leaders can change their minds?

In the UK, U-turns have been a prevailing theme of the coronavirus crisis, defining issues from masks to rental eviction to A-level grades. Too many changes in direction undermines confidence in leadership, leaving individuals feeling frustrated, unmotivated and anxious. So how can we walk the line between being open to changing our minds, and losing the support of those around us?

Research professor and author Brené Brown offers a useful distinction. She theorises that the greatest leaders are daring rather than armored; they value being a learner and getting it right, rather than being a knower and being right.

“We can buy into the belief that knowing is the only value we bring,” Brown says on an episode of her podcast, Unlocking Us. But when it really comes down to it, “daring… leaders don’t have all the answers but ask the right questions”.

Armored leaders lead from a place of self-protection. They perceive asking for help as a weakness. They avoid conflict and uncomfortable situations. In the face of change, armored leaders become territorial; they feel paralysed by decisions and focus on “the way things used to be”.

In contrast, daring leaders lead with grounded confidence. Asking for help is normalised and encouraged from all levels, whilst curiosity is perceived as a sign of courage. They take thoughtful risks, take accountability and learn from the mistakes of everyone. In the face of change, daring leaders are open, empathetic and collaborative, with systems in place that allow us to learn from failures.

That being said, Brown emphasises that “vulnerability for vulnerability’s sake is not effective, useful, or smart.” While strong minded leaders can be vulnerable, it is vital that their vulnerability has boundaries, and they are sure why they are deciding to share.

By the same token, being open to having one’s mind changed doesn’t mean being easily persuaded, but leaders must be sure that they are changing it for the right reasons. “Are we changing our mind because we are being inauthentic or pandering to a certain population (as in a politician’s case), or are we changing our mind because it’s the right thing to do?” asks Al Pitampalli, author of Persuadable: How Great Leaders Change Their Minds to Change the World, in Canadian Business.

“People who are persuadable aren’t always persuaded. So being persuadable means having a genuine willingness to change your mind in the face of evidence. But the key part of that is ‘in the face of evidence.’ So if people don’t present you with good reasons to change your mind, then you shouldn’t.”

How to stay open without losing credibility 

  • Evidence over ideology – Rather than getting fixated on a specific pathway or vision, test your business model in the face of new information. 
  • Intentional openness – If leaders are sharing with their team or changing their mind, they must reflect why they are doing so, and be able to express this unapologetically. 
  • Active open-mindedness – In order to avoid falling into the trap of the confirmation bias, being actively open-minded means actively seeking out opinions and information that challenges one’s preexisting beliefs.