Strong Opinions and Conscience-Directed Change

I encountered a really powerful concept that has implications for visionary leadership.  When reading Stanford University professor Bob Sutton’s “Work Matters” Blog, I was floored by the simplicity of the idea of “strong opinions, held weakly.”  This idea contends that one must possess strong opinions in order to generate compelling and convincing arguments in favor of that opinion.  Without this conviction, one will not have the motivation to dig deeply and flesh out the arguments.  Conversely, Sutton contends that these positions must be held weakly.  Why?  Well, if one’s position is too firmly entrenched, it raises the possibility that he may become deaf to alternate ideas and information. 

Why is this important for visionary leadership?  Leaders must be prepared to present opinions in the strongest possible light.  To do this, the leader must develop compelling and defensible positions that will influence followers.  However, holding the opinion weakly allows the leader to examine situations, information, and trends that may validate the present course or necessitate conscience-directed change.  By conscience-directed change I mean leaders making decisions based upon what is right, moral and most prudent for the situation. 

History is replete with examples of leaders staying the course in the face of contradictory evidence or experience.  The leaders of Enron maintained the status quo regardng their business practices when all evidence pointed to the fact that the business model was not sustainable.  Had they had the courage to face the situation head-on and make conscience-directed changes, history might tell a different story.  However, we all know how the story ends. 

Are any of your opinions so strong that you are willing to hold them to the bitter end?  Do you have the courage to make conscience-directed changes?  Just some questions to ponder.

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2 Responses to Strong Opinions and Conscience-Directed Change

  1. Nathan Tipton says:

    I’m intrigued by this model, although I’m troubled by the wording. On a connotative level, having strong ideas but holding (and presenting them) “weakly” appears pointless, since weakly/weakness implies that the ideas are not — in and of themselves — strong enough to be self-sustaining. Thus, it almost seems fruitless to even present these ideas if the real conviction behind these ideas isn’t there.

    Having said, I do understand how fraught the application of these ideas can be (and become), particularly if the conviction behind the ideas is SO strong that it blocks out any other ideas from being allowed to come forth. Such is the case of many failed (or failing) economic, political, and ideological models, as you rightly pointed out with Enron. And I understand the rationale behind Dr. Sutton’s point/counterpoint approach to ideas in the marketplace of leadership. But perhaps Dr. Sutton should consider refining his pithy phrase to something more closely aligned to what leaders do: namely, “strong opinions, well tempered.” After all, isn’t that what leaders do? They listen to ideas (and certainly have ideas of their own) but allow them to be discussed, reasoned out, and conditionally tempered by input and reason.

  2. Maybe the wording is a little confusing. However, it is semantic, because the point is to have conviction without becoming blind to alternatives. Zealotry, fundamentalism, pride, and bullheadedness, may all stem from quite different ideologies, but the end result is the same. Zealots, fundamentalists, and egomaniacs all end up in pretty much the same situation. Ultimately, they fail in their endeavors. The reasons are mutifaceted, but are generally rooted in the failure to consider alternate ideas. I think that is the real point that Dr. sutton is making. “Well-tempered” does improve on the language, but fails to illustrate the point as effectively.

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