happened in on October 3, 2002. I was at
a Harvard Business School Press conference in Cupertino, California,
quote that day was so compelling to me because it conveys so much about the primary
dilemmas that leaders face, and what skilled leaders can do to salvage even
most seemingly impossible situations. [Note
that quote comes from a transcript of the talk that the folks at Harvard gave
me. I have edited out a few lines, in part,
because Grove made some comments about the Soprano’s TV show that were funny,
but distract from the main point]. Grove
“None of us have a real understanding of where we are heading. I don’t. I have senses about it…… But decisions don’t wait, investment decisions or personal decisions and prioritization don’t wait for that picture to be clarified. You have to make them when you have to make them. So you take your shots and clean up the bad ones later.
And try not to get too depressed in the part of the journey, because there’s a professional responsibility. If you are depressed, you can’t motivate your staff to extraordinary measures. So you have to keep your own spirits up even though you well understand that you don’t know what you’re doing.”
Then, Clay Christensen asked, “So how do you work on that part about keeping good spirits or managing emotional response, leading your team.” Grove answered:
“Well, part of it is self-discipline and part of it is deception. And the deception becomes reality -- deception in the sense that you pump yourself up and put a better face on things than you start off feeling. After a while, if you act confident, you become more confident. So the deception becomes less of a deception. But I think it is very important for you to do two things: act on your temporary conviction as if it was a real conviction; and when you realize that you are wrong, correct course very quickly.”
Grove’s words provide a compact summary of at least four of the core ideas in Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense: Profiting from Evidence-Based Management, especially our chapter that asks, “Are Great Leaders in Control of their Companies?”1. The last point in his quote is “act on your temporary conviction as if it was a real conviction; and when you realize that you are wrong, correct course very quickly,” a nearly perfect compact summary of the most important single idea in our book: Effective evidence-based management entails adopting the attitude of wisdom; acting with knowledge while doubting what you know. This means, as I’ve written here before, that the best leaders have strong opinions, weakly held. They need strong opinions so that people can accurately assess an idea, and especially, so they know how to implement it – which ultimately means that things go wrong and go right, it is possible to tell WHAT has succeeded failed.
2. The second idea is about confidence and the power of the self-fulffiling prophecy. Note how Andy says: “And try not to get too depressed in the part of the journey, because there’s a professional responsibility. If you are depressed, you can’t motivate your staff to extraordinary measures. So you have to keep your own spirits up even though you well understand that you don’t know what you’re doing.” This may disturb some people, but the fact is that it is impossible to know if a decision will succeed our fail when you make it; but decisions must be made and implemented, or a company will stagnate or die.
There is strong evidence that one of the main ways to increase the odds that a decision will succeed is to express and feel confidence in it, even if you are not quite sure, because – as hundreds of studies of the self-fulfilling prophecy show, believing that something will succeed is one of the best ways to increase the chances it will succeed. Indeed, if you want to read about another great leader who was fantastic at presenting public confidence despite private doubt, see David McCullough’s 1776, on George Washington’s defining year. As Grove adds, such confidence then becomes authentic, and that further increases the odds that good things will happen “And the deception becomes reality -- deception in the sense that you pump yourself up and put a better face on things than you start off feeling. After a while, if you act confident, you become more confident.”
3. The third point is the paradox that leaders face: They need to continue doubting what they have done privately; but if they express too much public doubt, then people lose confidence. A leader’s self-doubt also undermines the implementation of current decisions – which increases the odds a good decision will fail and slows the process of learning why a bad decision is a bad. At the same time, if strong opinions are too strongly held, decision-makers have a tough time admitting failure or even updating current actions to make them more effective.
S0, to get out of this paradox, effective
leaders need to sustain some private self-doubt and as Michigan’s Karl Weick puts it -- argue if they are right, but listen as if they
are wrong. This requires surrounding
themselves with people who can and will argue over ideas (as Grove loves to do),
people who respect them, but tell them they are wrong (Henry Knox helped play
this role with George Washington).
4. The fourth point is about how to update and change course. When Grove realizes he has made a mistake (and he talks about his mistakes openly), he admitted them to yourself and others, and then took swift public and private action to change course and make repairs – this avoids focusing on making excuses, pointing fingers, or trying to hang on to as many elements of the unwise action as possible (to avoid admitting your imperfections). That is why Grove says “So you take your shots and clean up the bad ones later” and adds “when you realize that you are wrong, correct course very quickly.” Indeed, as we show in Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense, although some leaders are loath to admit their mistakes, a growing body of quantitative research suggests that when they admit that they and their companies have done something wrong, are going to stop it, and take actions to make things better, the performance of their organizations over the long haul is superior to leaders who prefer to point the finger of blame outward rather than inward.
I don’t mean to hold up Grove as a perfect or infallible leader; he has certainly made mistakes, as he is a human being like the rest of us. But I admire this statement because conveys far more honesty and wisdom than the drivel that comes from most executives… and note the complete lack of jargon monoxide.
P.S. The classic case of a leader that accepted reason ability and a firm that “acted with knowledge while doubting what they knew,” of course, was Johnson and Johnson and CEO James E. Burke’s handling of the Tylenol murders in the 1980’s. We just reviewed that case in class this week, astounding story.