How changing your mind makes you a better leader

Let ’em laugh
Let ’em laugh
Image: AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda
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Take a look at the biggest films of recent months, and you’ll see a bevy of heroes acclaimed for their ability to stick to their guns. In The Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss Everdeen refuses to succumb to the authoritarian regime’s attempts to make her their pawn. In the recent medical drama Concussion, Dr. Bennet Amolu resists pressure from the National Football League to suppress his research on the link between sports injuries and brain damage. And of course, the Star Wars franchise revolves around strong-willed Jedis remaining true to The Force even as their enemies try to convert them to the dark side.

Our culture celebrates people who have the willpower to resist the influence of others. Conversely, we tend to see receptiveness to alternative points of view as a sign of weakness. So it’s no surprise that many business leaders are quick to double down on their ideas and refuse to change their minds.

Yet this presents a huge problem for society. In a working marketplace of ideas, good ideas find plenty of buyers and become more prevalent. Bad ideas find fewer buyers and become more obscure. But markets require both sellers and buyers. In our broken marketplace, in business, politics and relationships, everyone wants to sell an idea. Far too few people are prepared to buy someone else’s.

In studying successful leaders for my book Persuadable: How Great Leaders Change Their Minds to Change the World, I’ve learned about how people from Abraham Lincoln to Billy Graham to former Ford Motor Company chief Alan Mulally have bucked the confidence, conviction, and consistency we traditionally associate with strong leadership. Instead, these kinds of leaders constantly question their own beliefs, welcome dissenting points of view, and are fully prepared to change their minds in the face of new evidence. They don’t particularly care if that makes them look less heroic.

People who are persuadable have one big thing in common: they’re what Jonathan Baron, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, calls actively open-minded. This means they’re willing to subject even their most favored beliefs to scrutiny.

Most of us are pretty open-minded when it comes to some of our beliefs and convictions. We’ll try a new restaurant, change toothpastes, and even admit after several attempts that we’re just not very good at Settlers of Cattan.

But we have a deep emotional attachment to some beliefs—those that relate to our politics, identities, and financial and physical well-being. As Upton Sinclair once wrote, “it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it.” Even the most open-minded people may be willing to entertain the possibility that they’re wrong on some important issues, yet are in no hurry to find out.

The most courageous persuadable leaders, on the other hand, are eager to find out the truth—whether it’s good or bad for them personally. And so they actively seek out evidence that threatens their beloved beliefs. As the famous writing expression goes, they attempt to “kill their darlings.”

When Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos saw that e-readers might threaten his flourishing physical book business, he wasn’t just open to change—he leaned into it. Despite the fact that e-books would undermine his core business, he tapped one of his most trusted associates to focus on digital publishing. “I want you to proceed as if your job is to put everyone selling books out of a job,” he told him. Years later, Amazon dominates the e-book market.

Or take the example of Peter Gibson, an Australian professor of gastroenterology. Gibson and his team conducted a widely-quoted 2011 study that found gluten was causing gastrointestinal distress in non-celiac patients. Gibson immediately became famous. However, he was skeptical of his own findings. So he designed an even more rigorous study to try to falsify his first one. He was successful. He then told the public that whatever was causing problems for the patients from his first study, it wasn’t the gluten.

Then there’s Daniel Khaneman, who won a Nobel in economic science in 2002 for his work on the psychology of judgment, helped found the field of behavioral economics and penned the best-seller Thinking, Fast and Slow. While he is one of the world’s most respected intellectuals, he still has critics. Instead of ignoring them, Kahneman seeks them out for collaborative efforts or asks them to convince him he’s wrong. You might expect a Nobel Laureate to retire early and avoid rocking the boat. But as Eldar Shafir, professor of psychology at Princeton points out, “Danny’s busy trying to disprove his own theories that led to the prize. It’s beautiful really.”

In a culture obsessed with conviction, leaders that go out of their way to be persuaded can appear at best foolish and at worst crazy. In fact, they’re neither.

Persuadable leaders have three powerful advantages. First, people who are willing to change their opinions as circumstances change see the world more clearly. Research suggests that individuals who have a cognitively flexible style—that is, people who are skeptical of their own beliefs and are willing to change their mind when they encounter new evidence—make more accurate predictions.

Being persuadable also makes leaders more agile. Leaders need to be able to adapt quickly when the housing market tanks or the smartphone becomes the world’s accessory of choice. Because persuadable leaders treat their beliefs as temporary, they’re able to more quickly abandon old beliefs in favor of a new one. That helps them beat out their competitors.

Lastly, persuadable people are able to address their weaknesses—thereby improving faster. We know that humans are not very good at recognizing our own flaws. We’re much better at assessing someone else’s. Persuadable leaders capitalize on this element of human nature by allowing others to point out their weaknesses for them.

People who are actively willing to change their minds help ensure that the best ideas prevail. That’s an incredible service to employees, businesses, voters, and society as a whole. In fact, I can’t think of a more heroic act.

Now if we can just get Hollywood on board.