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The power of doubt and the rise of trust

Corporate leadership is undergoing a major shift. Professor Michael Smets and Rachel Botsman explain why self-doubters earn our trust.

‘The more we talk about self-doubt, the more people will think, "Maybe not all our leaders have that confidence I expect, and if I have self-doubt then that's okay too."'  For those schooled in an authoritative, command-and-control style of leadership, this quote from Jacinda Ardern – taken from a podcast interview with the New Zealand Prime Minister in December 2020 – must seem like heresy. After all, in a world that has long expected its leaders to be confident and all-powerful, exhibiting even a scintilla of self-doubt is strictly verboten.

Yet, Ardern has been anything but an ineffectual leader. She has successfully stewarded her country through the Covid-19 pandemic and been rewarded with a landslide general election victory. Prior to that she was praised for uniting her country following the Christchurch terrorist attack and Whakaari volcano eruption.

It’s a volte-face from the pre-pandemic view of leadership which often equated doubt with weakness. Michael Smets, Professor of Management, was a co-author of the prescient 2015 CEO Report: Embracing the Paradoxes of Leadership and the Power of Doubt, for which more than 150 business leaders were interviewed.

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He recalls many told him that using words such as ‘doubt,’ ‘anxiety’ and ‘fear’ was tantamount to ‘career suicide.’ Yet they also said, paradoxically, that doubt was not the antithesis of confidence, but its foundation. The 'better' they doubt themselves in their decision-making process, the more confidence they have in the outcome.

The power of doubt has gained traction

The power of doubt

While a shift towards more authentically ‘human’ leaders was well underway by 2019, Covid-19 has accelerated the acceptance of doubt as an integral part of leadership. ‘During the pandemic, leaders made some of the thorniest decisions in their career, despite having limited knowledge,’ says Michael. ‘But it’s been interesting to see how many corporate leaders have been willing to admit “I don’t know” – the power of doubt has definitely gained more traction in recent years.’

Rachel Botsman, author of Who Can You Trust? and Trust Fellow at the School, agrees. ‘Even the word “leadership” suggests we place trust in leaders to steer the ship, make decisions and have clarity and confidence,' she says. 'But pre-pandemic, more organisations were talking about humility, a value that many previously saw as weak or passive. Covid-19’s uncertainty has accelerated the need [for leaders] to be comfortable with not knowing… It’s a huge paradigm shift.

‘For capable leaders such as Ardern, admitting you don’t know is like rocket fuel for trust. Because you’re being honest with the public, you’re not presenting them with false information, or giving them false hope by setting arbitrary timelines, as the UK did.’

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During the early days of the pandemic, when epidemiologists expressed this lack of knowledge during public briefings, the public didn’t panic. Paradoxically, it boosted their trust. Despite Covid-19 being a ‘great unknown,’ in March-April 2020, approval ratings for many governments in the democratic West surged. During a time when Italy had the world’s highest death rate from the virus, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte saw his popularity spike at 71%.

Unfollow the leaders

While sudden crises have often produced a ‘rally round the flag’ effect, Covid-19 was different. As Michael says: ‘Suddenly those leaders who had directive, authoritarian leadership had to go back to consensus-building.’ The public wanted to listen to an empathetic voice that cared. It was telling that less circumspect leaders, such as Donald Trump, lost support as the pandemic wore on.

By contrast, ‘Those countries with female leaders made it through the initial phase of the crisis with fewer casualties than those with male leaders,’ says Andrew White, Associate Dean of External Relations (and along with Michael, co-author of the CEO Report).

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Countries with female leaders saw fewer casualties than those with male leaders, during the initial stage of the crisis

Indeed, female-led countries such as New Zealand, Denmark (Mette Frederiksen) and Taiwan (Tsai Ing-wen) handled the pandemic more effectively with lower death rates and better compliance, according to an analysis of 194 countries by the Centre of Economic Policy Research and the World Economic Forum.

One explanation provided by the report was that women are taught to be more risk-averse than men. But while the sensitive style of Ardern might have chimed with citizens, Rachel notes, ‘there’s a big difference between a white female saying, “I don’t know,” and a black leader or somebody from a different socio-economic class. It could be a privileged position to say, “I don’t know” and still retain trust.’

Doubt has also underpinned many of the big scientific breakthroughs of the past 500 years, with scientists regularly employing it to test and discard dubious hypotheses and data.

As in science, business leaders can embrace doubt to improve their decision-making, says Michael: ‘Once you can process doubt and vulnerability, you can become a much more effective critical friend, consigliere and coach for others.’

The CEO Report talks of how leaders can harness doubt to ‘select different strategies to mobilise, even “outsource” their doubts [to their teams or boards] in service of better decisions.’ By ‘transforming doubt into a decision tool’ it helps leaders with the ‘discomfort of making decisions when the outcome is uncertain.'

‘Whether it was during the 2008 financial crisis or the pandemic, we’ve seen leaders pretend to be in the know when they’re not, and that can be dangerous,’ says Rachel.

‘[However] leaders like Ardern suspended the state of “not knowing,” while simultaneously promising they’ll do whatever they can to make a better decision. It’s also about slowing down and expanding your capacity to respond to uncertainty by observing and listening instead… The obsessive need for speed, control and performance can have a huge impact in driving poor decisions.’

Support for all

In summer 2021, doubt intruded into an area where it had been hitherto considered taboo: sport. Public support for Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka and US gymnast Simone Biles, who withdrew from major events to focus on their mental health, perhaps signals a new future.

When Emma Raducanu sensationally withdrew from Wimbledon mid-match citing dizziness and shortness of breath, she was criticised by some for lack of toughness. Three months later she won the US Open. As Rachel says, ‘It doesn’t mean you trust them less as athletes; you trust them as people instead.’

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The England football manager Gareth Southgate embodies this growing acceptance of vulnerability in sport, adds Rachel. ‘He’s a beautiful demonstration of doubt, humility and trust,’ she says. Pippa Grange, the England team’s psychologist, encouraged Southgate’s players to ‘not be attached to the outcome and the “win,” but finding confidence and enjoyment in the unknown.’

Demonstrating doubt won’t work for every leader, says Rachel. ‘You have to be trusted in terms of your capabilities,’ she says. ‘If the public think you’re incompetent and unreliable, and you come forward and say, “I don’t know,” it’ll further erode trust. You need a proven track record.’

There’s also a growing expectation for ‘compassionate’ CEOs. As the CEO Report recognised in 2018, ‘Today, CEOs are expected to be “human” stewards for stakeholders – no longer “heroic” agents of shareholders.’

This was highlighted in February this year, when KPMG UK Chair Bill Michael was forced to step down after telling staff to ‘stop moaning’ and ‘playing the victim card’ about pandemic working conditions.

The ego-driven, overconfident leader is not attractive to the younger generations in many cultures. We can expect to see a very different type of leader over the next ten years

‘Leaders today can get fired or have to resign if their employees or the public think they don’t care,’ says Botsman. ‘I think many leaders are still trying to figure this out: “How do I know what people are feeling?” It doesn’t matter what profession you’re in – empathy is the foundation of most forms of leadership.’

It aligns with the rise of purpose within companies; future CEOs may be hounded from their positions if their views or statements aren’t well received by the public.

Does the rising power of doubt mean the übermensch leader archetype faces extinction? Not so, according to Rachel, who warns that ‘con artist politicians/leaders who know how to manipulate our trust could emerge,’ leaving the public unable to distinguish honest leadership from something more disingenuous. Also, as the likes of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping show, the age of the authoritarian is far from over.

Rachel is confident the wind is against them, however: ‘This type of ego-driven, overconfident leader is not attractive, in many cultures, to younger generations. It’s not who they will trust in the future. We are undergoing a major humility shift – we’ll see a very different type of leader emerge over the next ten years.’