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18 January 2019
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Is being certain not the right thing to be?

11 May 2015  

A group of us were chatting over lunch following a mentoring session and one of the group asked me what quality did I think was least desirable in a leader, blogs John Bowen.


The context was that we had earlier been working on polishing leadership strengths and it rather disconcerted my audience when I told them that, for me, the least desirable quality was certainty because, after all, isn’t a driven focus one of leadership’s essentials?


It is, but there is a significant difference between giving off an aura of confidence and having a certainty that there is only one right answer. Leaders do need to be assured because that brings calm and confidence to those that are being led and enables them to move forward themselves with equal confidence.


But a certainty that you are right and everyone else is wrong is not necessarily a good quality for a leader. For a start, leaders who think that they alone are right tend not to listen to others and especially not to anyone who dares to bring them evidence that they might be wrong. They tend to plough on regardless until disaster befalls them and their people, and even then they will not admit that they might have been wrong.


Good leaders are not certain that they are right. Instead, they have used their experience and judgement in weighing up the options, risks and rewards and have come to a reasoned decision on the course that they will take. Because they have thought things through, they are also aware of the things they need to watch for that either confirm that the decision was right or that they need to change tack. Good leaders are always prepared to admit that they got it wrong and are prepared to take corrective action.


If you have a dictionary to hand, look up the definition of zealot (you can also try bigot) and in either you will see the signs of unshakeable belief that also characterise a leader who is certain. Being led by a zealot or a bigot is none too desirable to me – and I have worked for some over the years.


Another problem with having a leader who is certain is that they will not follow a consensus decision if it does not conform to his ideal. Sometimes in an organisation there will be a team decision that is a close call. For example, if five directors vote and the decision is three to two. It may be a narrow vote, but once all of the arguments have been heard the organisation needs to close ranks and get behind the chosen direction if they are to succeed.


If one of the two who voted against is a leader who is certain that they were right they probably will not put their efforts into getting on with supporting the chosen direction; they will be subversive and disruptive and their behaviour will affect their team.

Leaders who are certain that they are right can rarely communicate effectively why they are right. They are dismissive of anyone who questions their belief and scathing of those who do not agree. A leader who has thought things through will enjoy far better support simply because they have sought consensus and been able to persuade others using reason.


Organisational leadership is not democracy – it is more of a dictatorship, but leaders who are certain behave more like despots and the latter are to be avoided. At least that’s how I see it, but, of course, I may be wrong.


John Bowen is an FM consultant