Here is an excerpt from an article written by Robert I. Sutton for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please click here.
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Recently, I posted a list of 12 Things Good Bosses Believe [click here]. Now I’m following up by delving into each one of them. This post is about the sixth belief: “I strive to be confident enough to convince people that I am in charge, but humble enough to realize that I am often going to be wrong.”
?My favorite track on Tom Petty’s 2006 album Highway Companion is a song called “Saving Grace.” About halfway through, he closes off a verse by singing: “You’re confident but not really sure.” That’s a state of mind that sounds paradoxical, but at times it really is true. In fact, it’s the essence of what developmental psychologist John Meacham called the “attitude of wisdom.” And it’s a good description of some bosses I know, who strike a healthy balance between knowing and doubting. ??Meacham’s insight, which was developed much further by one of my intellectual heroes, organizational psychologist Karl Weick, was that the people we consider wise have the courage to act on their beliefs and convictions at the same time that they have the humility to realize that they might be wrong, and must be prepared to change their beliefs and actions when better information comes along.
When I first became enamored with wisdom after reading Weick’s writings (perhaps eight years ago) I heard a great conversation about it at a conference put on by Harvard Business School Publishing in Silicon Valley. There, I heard innovation guru Clay Christensen and HBSP editor Walter Kiechel interview long-time Intel CEO Andy Grove [click here.], who had recently relinquished that title and become Chairman. I took careful notes and then a few weeks later went back to the organizers to request a transcript, which they were kind enough to send me. Grove gave his own testimony to this notion of “Confident but not really sure.” I’ve edited this for length (see the whole thing and more of my thoughts on it here), but here’s what he advised:
None of us have a real understanding of where we are heading. I don’t. I have senses about it. But decisions don’t wait, investment decisions or personal decisions and prioritization don’t wait, for that picture to be clarified. You have to make them when you have to make them. So you take your shots and clean up the bad ones later. I think it is very important for you to do two things: act on your temporary conviction as if it was a real conviction; and when you realize that you are wrong, correct course very quickly.
This balancing act between confidence and doubt is a hallmark of great bosses. The confidence inspires people to follow them and believe in them, but the doubt helps ensure they get things right. They are always listening and watching for evidence that they might be wrong, and inviting others to challenge their conclusions (albeit usually in private and in “backstage” conversations).
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To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please click here.
?Robert Sutton is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University. He studies and writes about management, innovation, and the nitty-gritty of organizational life. His new book is Good Boss, Bad Boss, forthcoming from Business Plus.