Strong leaders and the art of Persuadability

By Ian Mann for


Strong leaders, we have been told, must possess confidence, conviction, and consistency as embodied by General George S. Patton, for example.

Globalisation and the rapid advancement of technology have made our world more complex, dynamic, and unpredictable than ever before. In uncertain and dynamic environments, it is impossible to have all the answers.

Persuadability, is the genuine willingness and ability to change your mind in the face of new evidence, and this is a much underappreciated advantage in business. It’s one of the most critical skills of modern leadership.

Admiral William McRaven was the leader of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Under his leadership the success rate for missions in Iraq and Afghanistan surged from 35% to over 80%. Far from exuding confidence, conviction, and consistency, he is ever vigilant about being overconfident. He seems fully prepared to abandon an idea that no longer makes sense, and he doesn’t seem to care much at all about being consistent.

Jeff Bezos, the self-made billionaire founder and CEO of Amazon, has changed his mind countless times, and abandoned many projects. Some of Amazon’s greatest innovations were the result of abandoning an idea rapidly, and then pivoting towards a better one.

Ray Dalio is the founder and CEO of Bridgewater, the most successful hedge fund in the world.  Based on total returns to investors, Dalio has recently surpassed investor George Soros as the most successful money manager in history. Dalio ruthlessly scrutinises his own failed trades to learn from his mistakes, and willingly admits he doesn’t understand the world perfectly. This is possibly his greatest asset. Dalio is genuinely open to criticism, not as an act of selflessness, but from profound self-interest.

McRaven, Bezos, and Dalio are hugely successful examples of people with a mind-set very different from the leaders with confidence, conviction and consistency. Their mind-set is persuadability.

Persuadable leaders understand that they are limited by their own biases, and so they actively and often seek out the opinions of others.

However, this open-mindedness is not easily achieved. It requires leaders to be what actively open-minded, something that people don’t do naturally.

Consider your response to being informed by a doctor that you have a rare life-threatening disease. What would be your first course of action? Seeking a competent second opinion. What would your course of action be if you were told you were in perfect health. Would you even think to get a second opinion? Unlikely, because the results confirm what you wish to hear.

To be actively open-minded, requires being in a hurry to find out the truth, whether it is good or bad. People do not see the truth when it threatens something that they care about. It is impossible to make a person understand something, when his salary depends on him not understanding it. The most powerful resistance comes when the truth threatens our identity rather than confirming it.

There are a number of simple, but not easy techniques, that can help us overcome the confirmation bias.  One technique, considering the opposite, requires the recognition of counter-evidence, and the most direct and helpful way to do this is just to consider the opposite.

Another technique is that we should be updating our beliefs with evidence regularly.

A practical way to avoid being too persuadable is to find three pieces of counter-evidence before changing your stance.  To change your mind based on three pieces of counter-evidence will provide you with the confidence that a change is required.

Effective leadership requires the understanding that the way the leader see the world, isn’t necessarily the way others see it. We need the other person’s perspective. When leaders actually focus on perspective taking, it becomes a real competitive advantage for them.

Being persuadable cannot be ongoing; at some point a decision must be made, but when is the right time to stop?

Think in terms of the returns on the effort to solicit more opinions. There is a point after which soliciting other opinions provides a diminishing return. The question must be, “Is it worth it?” Persuadable leaders needs to be alert, so they do not find themselves falling into unnecessary perfectionism and over analysis.

In short, there is one way that is certain to improve any belief: expose it to criticism. Avoid absolute closure on anything. No issue is ever completely settled.

To commit to persuadability as a leadership tool, is a commitment to never-ending self-correction.