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The certainty trap


“I prefer a confident president to a certain president.”
—Madeleine Albright

I like this quote a lot. It reminds me of our now retired family medical doctor, a down-to-earth guy with many decades of experience. Although he had the silver hair and degree that allowed him to answer most questions with certainty, he had the confidence to sometimes say, “I don’t know.” In fact, he once dragged me into his office area from the exam room, pulling out a medical textbook to see if we could find an answer together. Pretty rare for a profession full of know-it-alls.

When I first heard the Madeleine Albright quote, I thought about leaders I’d known or worked with over the years and which of these two buckets they fell into. Those who were confident but not always certain were more successful, more fun to be around and more respected by their teams. Those who were always certain (think Donald Rumsfeld) were constantly one step away from a catastrophic error. And if it came, they had little support from those around them. Know-it-alls who fall rarely get help up from anyone.

The further up the ladder you get in an organization, confidence becomes more important and certainty more dangerous. Adhering to rigid dogma virtually ensures your failure.

A recent Harvard Business Review piece (“Long CEO Tenure Can Hurt Performance,” March 2013) points out that financial performance dictates that a CEO stay in office 4.8 years. That’s the point when the company’s financial performance peaks. The authors hypothesize that as CEOs get entrenched, they start to breathe their own exhaust (my words, not theirs), and they reduce the amount of outside input they receive. There are numerous behavioral reasons that correlate with reduced financial performance, but from my experience, they often become too “certain.”

So you’re a CEO who’s been in place for 4.7 years. … What do you do?

1. Keep learning, formally or informally. Your current knowledge may be as much of a detriment as a benefit.
2. Don’t continue relying on the same sources for your view of the world. Look for new data points and fresh relationships, including some outside of your company and industry. Especially look for points of view that differ from yours.
3. Review your vision and strategy. Are they really still relevant?
4. Find a thought partner or coach who’s not afraid to push your buttons and ask hard questions.

Experience helps us learn which ideas and behaviors lead to success, but that same experience can be a detriment as well. Be confident, but when you’re certain, when you absolutely know you’re right, be cautious!

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Todd Ordal

Todd Ordal is president of Applied Strategy®. Todd helps CEOs achieve better financial results, become more effective leaders and sleep easier at night. He is a former CEO and has led teams as large as 7,000. Todd is the author of Never Kick a Cow Chip On A Hot Day: Real Lessons for Real CEOs and Those Who Want To Be (Morgan James Publishing, 2016). Connect with Todd on LinkedIn, Twitter, call 303-527-0417 or email todd@toddordal.com.

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