The strongest leaders aren’t afraid to change their minds

The author of “Persuadable” on why modern leaders need to be willing to challenge their own assumptions

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos: “Instead of sticking to his guns, he changed his approach,” says Al Pittampalli. (David Ryder/Getty)

We tend to think of strong leadership as being decisive, persistent and unwavering: Set a goal, work toward it, and don’t get distracted. And while there’s plenty to be said for having focus, one author argues that modern leaders also need to be more flexible and ready to change course.

Al Pittampalli is a consultant who has helped NASA, Boeing, IBM and others change the way they think about leadership. His forthcoming second book, Persuadable: How Great Leaders Change Their Minds to Change the World, argues that in a world that’s changing faster than ever, leaders’ willingness to change their own minds is the real competitive advantage. We talked with him about the accelerating pace of business change, how to assimilate new information, and when to stick to your guns.

Business leaders are generally more concerned with how to persuade and influence other people, instead of how to be persuaded. Why did you write a book about becoming more persuadable?

Business leaders are generally pretty persuasive. We’ve kind of maxed out on persuasiveness. It’s not that it’s not important, it’s just not as important as being persuadable, especially in a world that’s changing faster than ever. It turns out that the competitive advantage that business leaders need now is the ability to change our minds in the face of new information and new circumstances.

What is the biggest advantage that persuadable leaders have over non-persuadable ones?

There are three advantages: accuracy, agility and growth. The world is obviously more complex and uncertain in almost every industry and leaders need to make good decisions. Being persuadable allows leaders to use all the available information—even the stuff that contradicts what they already believe—in order to make sure that they are making the most precise judgement.

Then there’s agility. We all know that we need to adapt to change. It turns out adapting to change isn’t only necessary, it’s the speed at which we adapt to change. It turns out in order to adapt to some changing circumstance, the first thing we have to do is to change our minds. Every industry, whether it be technology, publishing or entertainment, there are a lot of things that are changing, and a lot of leaders are kind of holding on to the status quo and waiting too long to change their minds. But the leaders who are aggressively leaning into those changes are able to capitalize on them.

And finally, growth. The world is becoming more competitive than ever with globalization and the rise of the Internet, and so leaders need to be able to improve their particular skills and abilities. Feedback is everywhere, but the problem is, leaders don’t often embrace the feedback as much as they should. So persuadable leaders are able to lean into uncomfortable feedback, even if it contradicts a belief that they have about themselves. That allows leaders to really improve at a more rapid pace than other leaders.

Can you provide an example where a change in thinking proved to be beneficial?

One example is Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, who launched Amazon Auctions, designed to compete with eBay. That didn’t go as well as he wanted it to. So what he did was, instead of sticking to his guns, he basically changed his approach. He made some adjustments: he abandoned the old idea, pivoted and moved onto new ideas and that eventually became Amazon’s highly profitable third-party sellers program.

That seems like a simple example, but when you think about the traditional leadership mindset, that kind of behaviour is incompatible with the way we’ve often thought about leadership. It has always been about being a strong, decisive commander who stays the course and defies the critics and is persistent in making a particular goal happen. But this new persuadable mindset is so important because we’re just living in a world that requires constant change, because things are entirely uncertain. 

So how can leaders not appear weak and flimsy when they do want to change their mind on something?

I would challenge the premise that leaders do appear weak or flimsy when they change their minds. We’ve kind of bought into this myth that leaders who change their minds are flip-floppers or pushovers. The reality is that’s just not true. Our culture often tells us that, but it really has a lot to do with our intention. Are we changing our mind because we are being inauthentic or pandering to a certain population (as in a politician’s case), or are we changing our mind because it’s the right thing to do? One of the obligations of a leader is to really be clear on why they are changing their mind, and not apologize when it’s an intelligent decision. That may upset certain people, or come off as not the kind of leadership style that other people might like, but in a world where those kinds of leaders get the results, that’s what really is the most important.

What must you do to become more persuadable?

There are several different things. In my book, I actually outline seven practices of persuadable leaders, but I think the most important thing is what’s called “Kill your darlings.” It’s this idea of active open-mindedness. Everybody thinks they are open-minded; what open-mindedness really is the ability to passively accept information we might not like.

If your product, business, strategy or relationship with a customer is being threatened by new information, open-mindedness says: “Ok, I’ll give that new information a chance, I’ll sit here and wait for that information to come to me.” That’s often admirable, but it’s not nearly enough.

The most successful leaders, as chronicled in my book, are actively open-minded—which basically means they go out and proactively try to kill their own beliefs. They don’t wait for that negative feedback to come to them, they hurry up and try to actually say “if I need to change my mind, I might as well do it sooner rather than later.” The really courageous leaders go out of their way and try to seek out information that might threaten their industry, their reputation, an existing business product that they currently have on the market, because they are in the business of finding out the truth and they are in a hurry. Because bad news doesn’t get better with age.

How do you avoid becoming too persuadable that you lose your own ability to assess something for what it is?

The first thing is to realize that being persuadable does not mean being gullible. People who are persuadable aren’t always persuaded. So being persuadable means having a genuine willingness to change your mind in the face of evidence. But the key part of that is “in the face of evidence.” So if people don’t present you with good reasons to change your mind, then you shouldn’t.

That being said, we could be endlessly persuadable if we want to, and that’s a problem too, because leaders have to take action. And being persuadable is expensive and it takes time. The key is to identify what are the kinds of decisions and issues that are worth being persuadable on and what aren’t. For example, if you’re dealing with a decision or an issue that’s kind of not so consequential or high-risk, it’s just something that just needs to get done, then you should be more decisive than you are persuadable. On the other hand, if it’s a decision that means a great deal and can lead to a huge gain if you win and a catastrophic loss if you lose, then that’s when you want to make sure you can be persuadable.

Persuadable: How Great Leaders Change Their Minds to Change the World is out today from HarperBusiness.