Leaders often strive to follow their convictions. Waver too often and you’ll find your efforts going in a hundred different directions, to little real benefit. But a sense of direction and a sense of certainty aren’t quite the same thing. In fact, being too certain can poison your leadership and lead to decisions you might wind up regretting.
We’ve all seen them: Politicians, pundits, TV preachers—really, anyone we disagree with who declares with certainty something we believe at our core to be untrue or misleading. We throw our hands up in exasperation because we’ve seen the evidence that contradicts their point of view.
This is the most obvious danger of certainty—that it blinds us to the truth. Bill Nye and the creationist Ken Ham were both asked during a televised debate what would change their minds about what is true. Ham said nothing, while Nye said evidence.
One of them had been blinded by certainty, while the other was following the scientific process, accepting that we will always be wrong about something, and that the answer is to follow what looks most like truth and change our minds when we see evidence to the contrary.
Behind this lies the well-known phenomenon called "confirmation bias." Though observed many times over the centuries by the likes of Thucydides and Leo Tolstoy, it was first systematically analyzed and named by the English psychologist Peter Wason in 1960. Modern psychologists have since built on Wason’s findings, showing that we're biased toward evidence and interpretations that confirm our existing beliefs. From the information we take in to the way we analyze facts to what we hold in our memory, everything is shaped by that tendency.
Everyone is prone to confirmation bias. It’s a useful shortcut in our subconscious minds that makes it easier to process the overwhelming mass of sensory experiences. But by giving in to the temptation of rigid certainty, we let that bias take over, and risk it fooling us into missing the truth. As a result, we often act as though our way of leading is right, because to do otherwise would leave us directionless.
So it's no surprise that certainty can lead to inflexibility when it comes to strategy. We pick a way of working that we like and stick with it, certain that it is the best. We become invested in our way of working and, if challenged, we will defend it to the hilt.
That causes us to overlook how the best way of working always depends on the person and the circumstances. What worked once may not work as well again under new conditions. A company that can't adapt will die. Ford famously worked out the best way of making cars for his era, but no one still follows his "any color as long as it’s black" rule any longer.
Even picking a single way of working for yourself can be dangerous. Not trying different approaches means missing out on the opportunity to find better ways of working. Do that, and you won't be able to learn anything new—an essential quality for any leader. Overly certain leaders miss out, not just on a chance to improve their own knowledge base, but to apply new evidence to the challenges their companies face. Worst of all, they encourage inflexibility in those around them, too, and can bring progress to a halt.
Flexibility, on the other hand, opens you to different options and can get you past repeated impasses by testing out solutions you haven't tried before. Certainty may seem like decisiveness or vision, but it can sometimes undermine both.
Seth Godin has written that certainty itself is "a form of hiding." It shelters us from fear, doubt, and the pressure of making decisions. Most of all, it’s a way of hiding from the risk of seeing that we're wrong—something few leaders like.
But the real risk isn’t seeing that we aren’t working in the best way we could—it's in working sub-optimally without ever realizing it. If you hide behind too much certainty, you may ignore the evidence of waste or misdirection in your company. You may miss opportunities to work smarter. Even if you’re working well, you may lose ground to competitors who are working even better—even if they're less certain that their approach is right than you are that yours is.