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Respect those who listen, not those who bluster

Like many of you reading this, I grew up in the tumult of a large extended family. The social milieu was complicated; many uncles and aunts and cousins and family friends were always milling around. Many diverse opinions on pretty much anything under the sun were on offer, all the time.

I was a quiet, reflective boy, never quite at ease in this hubbub. I did not offer firm opinions on anything; I did not feel able to, for I did not know enough about anything back then. But I became aware that this did not apply to everyone. Some people in the melee seemed to have a very strong opinion about pretty much anything.

We all encounter them: the folks who need no time to think; who can assertively and confidently pronounce judgement in virtually every situation. This is what’s wrong; this is what we must do; this is the way forward. They are always ready to say it; always confident; always forceful.

They are quite often right, and that’s what makes their opinions particularly powerful. They take charge of many situations, and most of us bow to their verdicts and follow their recommendations. Initially, I was in a state of wonder watching such people. How did they always know what to do? Where does that sort of power come from? Why are they always absolutely certain, and why do doubts and reservations never dog them?

It was only as I grew older that I began to see such people for what they really are. I noticed that some of their solutions were actually incorrect. The car did not restart, even after we had replaced the part that Mr Absolutely Certain had assured us was defective. The person we hired turned out to be a catastrophe, even though Mr Damn Sure had promoted him vigorously as the obvious candidate. The quick answer turned out to be the wrong answer.

Over time, I saw that these bad outcomes actually outnumbered the good ones – heavily. And yet these chaps’ confidence never falters. They show even more bravado when their advice is wrong. They double down, or blame others for not following it well enough. The weak-willed people in the circle (who are always the majority) invariably fail to notice the high error rate. The bluster wins.

In university, I came across these words from Woody Allen: “Confidence is what you have before you have understood the problem.” I laughed, with recognition as well with understanding.

Organizational psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic calls this the competence-confidence gap. There is a type of leader in which this gap is particularly pronounced. Those in this group have an abundance of confidence, but very little of that swagger is supported by competence. They pronounce freely and without any forethought on plenty of things; but there is little substance to their outpourings. They rely on their confidence and nothing else. 

We follow them at our peril.

These leaders, sadly, have taken the top jobs in many of the world’s nations and organizations. They rely on machismo and bombast to get their way. They are loud and confident – while knowing very little about anything. They are, naturally, dismissive of knowledge and expertise. They play to the lowest common denominator, stoking up fears and hate. They use emotion to hide what should be obvious to all: their achievements are few and far between; their errors are multitudinous.

If we allow them to, they will undo us.

Sadly, bluff and bravado work on many people. More of us need to understand that active listening is one of the core skills of leadership. The great leader is rarely the one who knows what to do immediately; the great one listens, investigates, reasons. The world is far more complex than these knee-jerk hip-shooters can comprehend. Great solutions demand the humility to pay attention and consult.

This can be dismissed as weakness, when it is actually strength. We must not confuse reflection with indecision; we must not think consultation betrays a lack of conviction. We are not chest-thumping chimps; we have been given higher thought so that we use it. We should respect the quiet intelligence and the sober mind – and wait for the results. Not everything can be done with a sweeping gesture. Most lasting solutions have many moving parts. Give good leaders time to assemble them.

Let’s learn to have respect for those who bring us results and impact, not those who bluff and bamboozle.

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