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Leaders should be open to new evidence.
Leaders should be open to new evidence.

Rethinking your leadership strategy

In an ever-changing world, questioning one’s existing beliefs and biases is critically important. PAUL SLOANE explains why leaders who can change their minds can be an effective asset to the businesses they serve.

Why do we find it so hard to change our minds and why are we so critical of people who do it? Leadership expert John Adair says that the most important – and often most difficult – sentence for a leader to utter is, “I admit that I was wrong.”

Perhaps this is because political leaders who do change their minds are accused in the media of flip-flopping, doing a ‘U-turn’ or lacking conviction.

Yet there is no value in having convictions if they are heading in the wrong direction. Joseph Stalin and Robert Mugabe are two leaders who just kept pressing on with the wrong precepts and their obstinate and single-minded approaches were responsible for the impoverishment and death of many of their people.

We need leaders who are open to new evidence and who are prepared to change direction. Part of the problem is that we all suffer from confirmation bias, which is the tendency to search for, recall and prefer information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses.

The effect is stronger for emotionally- charged issues and for deeply-held positions. It leads us to interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting our beliefs. For example, when a mass shooting occurs in the USA, proponents of gun control see it as proof of the need for restrictions on gun ownership.

On the other side, opponents of gun control see the same incident as evidence for the need for more people to carry guns so as to defend themselves. Similarly, when there is a savage snowstorm, some people see it as clear evidence of climate change and others as proof that global warming is a myth.

"We cling to our beliefs because it is easy and comfortable to do so – but the world is moving fast and some of our beliefs might become outdated or just be plain wrong"

Confirmation bias leads to overconfidence in personal beliefs, despite contrary evidence. In 1992, Rachel Nickell was brutally murdered on Wimbledon Common in London. The police brought in an expert who constructed what he claimed was a psychological profile of the killer.

The police found a suspect, Colin Stagg, who walked his dog on the Common and who fit this profile. There was very little evidence that he had had anything to do with the crime but the police became convinced that he was the murderer and they laid an elaborate ‘honey pot’ plan to encourage him to confess.

Once the police became convinced of Stagg’s guilt, they ignored contrary evidence and confirmation bias set in; they redoubled their efforts to build a case against him. Unsurprisingly, this did not work. Stagg was brought to trial, where the judge threw the case out.

More than 15 years later, in 2008, Robert Knapper was convicted of the killing of Rachel Nickell; Knapper had been questioned in 1992 but wrongly eliminated.

Stagg, who had spent 13 months in custody, was given a public apology and over £700,000 (AU$1.2 million) in compensation.

Now, let’s consider some people who had the courage to change their minds and thus changed the course of history. Saul of Tarsus persecuted the early Christians until he had his famous revelation on the road to Damascus. He then became a powerful proponent of Christianity and helped build the nascent religion.

As St Paul, he is revered today as one of the greatest saints.

Mikhail Gorbachev was a dedicated Communist Party officer who rose to be leader of the USSR. He saw the many problems of the Russian system and introduced the radical policies of perestroika (‘restructuring’) and glasnost (‘openness’).

This led to independence for the former Soviet satellite states and the fall of the Berlin Wall, effectively ending the Cold War.

F.W. De Klerk was the last president of Apartheid South Africa. He had been a strong advocate of apartheid but changed his view and took the courageous decision to release Nelson Mandela from prison and start the transition to a multi-racial society.

We cling to our beliefs because it is easy and comfortable to do so. We conform to the norms of our chosen tribes and subscribe to the beliefs and principles of those groups.

We can see this as being strong-minded and purposeful but the world is moving fast and some of our beliefs might become outdated or just be plain wrong.

We need to be open to different viewpoints and courageous enough to change our minds on important issues.

When considering your own leadership style, perhaps take Gorbachev and De Klerk as your role models, not Stalin and Mugabe!

Paul Sloane

Paul Sloane is an author and founder of Destination Innovation, which offers innovation workshops. Visit:

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