Have strong beliefs, but hold them weakly

Jeff Bezos values 'people who often change their minds', and it's something we can all learn from.

Jeff Bezos recently revealed what he considers the highest mark of intelligence. Given that he has achieved a modicum of commercial success and is one of our main clients, I read the piece (originally from the Basecamp blog and since reported on Inc) with great interest.

Sadly, neither a Scottish accent nor a love of puns was among the desired criteria, but the top answer was nonetheless highly illuminating: Bezos looks for "people who often change their minds". 

At first sight, this seems to contradict everything we’re taught about modern leadership. Surely, we need to have "strong" opinions, "unshakeable" beliefs and "consistent" strategies? Don’t we deride politicians who "flip flop" and gleefully retweet comments that "have not aged well"? Well, yes, up to a point: I mean, obviously conviction and commitment remain extremely important qualities in any leadership team. But not when these attitudes become entrenched and at odds with new facts or circumstances. 

As the cliché goes, we live in a time of unprecedented change. But, paradoxically, we also exist in a world where views seem to be more entrenched than ever and incapable of adjusting to new information. This isn’t just a challenge for those running our country (or indeed "ruining" it). It’s also a problem for an industry like ours that is fundamentally about changing minds. But before we berate voters and consumers for their apparent ignorance or inertia, perhaps we should look at our own behaviour and reluctance to alter course when necessary.

The truth is that many of us plough on with an insight, strategy or idea well beyond the point that we should be seeking out new ground. We’ve often spent a long time getting there and bought into a number of assumptions along the way. We’re conscious that we’ve sold our thinking to others and so are embarrassed about contradicting ourselves or wasting their time. Frankly, we’ve not only drunk the Kool-Aid but encouraged everyone else to have a glug – so are now reluctant to admit that it tastes like cat piss. But that’s exactly what we need to do, if it’s a more accurate description of the evidence in front of us.

As a young pup at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, I remember David Abbott reluctantly ripping up his deck the night before the BT pitch – and then winning with "It’s good to talk" in the morning. Likewise, I gather that Nike’s Phil Knight initially hated "Just do it" (especially when he heard that Dan Wieden had based it on the last words of an executed murderer!), but wasn’t too proud to perform a dramatic U-turn later. And as for Steve Jobs (who we usually see as the epitome of the clear-thinking, decisive leader) – well, Tim Cook recalls that the guru "would flip on something so fast that you would forget that he was the one taking the polar 180-degree opposite position the day before".

I guess it was easier for these titans than the rest of us, because while their teams might roll their eyes they would also trust their boss’ judgement and believe that the change would be for the best. But we mortals need to bite the bullet sometimes too, whether it’s reversing out of a pitch, tearing up a strategy, un-selling an idea, flipping a pricing decision or starting again with a product design. These are some of the most difficult decisions in our working lives and not to be taken lightly or repeatedly. That’s precisely why leaders like Bezos prize the ability to make them.

Another smart cookie (Paul Saffo, director of the Institute for the Future) once summed up this approach by coining the phrase "strong beliefs, weakly held". I fear that all too often we marketers have "weak beliefs, strongly held". Of course you may feel differently and think this piece simply represents a recipe for chaos and indecision. But, if so, I hope you’ll change your mind.

Andy Nairn is a founding partner of Lucky Generals

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