It is common to hear that effective leadership requires conviction: acting in accordance and pursuit of one’s beliefs. I’m not sure this is right – at least not all the time. I think there is a lot to said for being a humble and courageous leader, grounded in evidence, rather than one driven solely by conviction.
The word ‘conviction’ is derived from the Latin convincere, from con- ‘with’ and vincere ‘conquer’. It implies that one’s mind is made up, and the job is to persuade or convince others.
Humility, on the other hand, implies that one does not know the answer. It suggests modesty and an acceptance that one’s own opinion or proposed course of action may not be the best.
A leader that embodies only conviction with no humility will likely polarise those they seek to lead and in some cases make poorly informed or biased decisions. On the other hand, a leader that embodies only humility probably won’t make any decisions at all.
So what is the way forward? I think it is humble and courageous leadership, with just a small dose of conviction where required. This means a starting point of intellectual curiosity, not a mind made up. It means adopting a scientist’s way of thinking in which one does not know the answer but is curious to find out. It means having the courage to question honestly one’s own convictions.
Evidence has a role. This may be drawing on the experiences of others that have gone before (and learning from it). Or it may involve going out to generate new data to test out ideas. The trick is to be genuinely humble and not do what many leaders (and politicians) do in cherry-picking evidence to support one’s own pre-existing conviction.
Sometimes evidence can point to a clear way forwards. Happy days. Often it is not so straight-forward - which leads us to courage.
Adopting a starting point of humility and engagement with evidence can surface some challenging scenarios. Probably the most likely scenario is that evidence does not point to a clear-cut way forward. Evidence may be sparse or it may be contradictory. This requires skill and courage to navigate uncertain waters. It is times like this when that dose of conviction is useful, tempered with a little humility.
Or sometimes evidence can challenge preconceived notions or convictions. It takes a braver leader to change course in light of new evidence than one that belligerently sticks to their guns.
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