When circumstances change or when new facts emerge, a leader must be entirely willing to change direction, on a dime if necessary, to go 180 degrees from what he said or decided yesterday, and then to be equally enthusiastic about the new direction. Leaders must not be doctrinaire, which I define as hewing to a particular line of thought even after it has been shown to be inadequate to the task. “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself,” Walt Whitman wrote. And, as Emerson once famously said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
Consistency is important; “foolish consistency” by which I take Emerson to mean unreasonable and doctrinaire consistency, isn’t worth much.
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The willingness to change one’s mind when new information is added to the equation is, I’ve found, part of what defines good leadership. It is quite reasonable and not at all dilatory to reverse yourself: the basis on which you made the decision yesterday has either been shown to have been incomplete, or the equation has now been altered by the advent of better information and so you change your mind.
People whose leadership styles I admire, such as Bob Kerrey, a former senator and current president of The New School, now and then made a decision and chose a direction, and sometime later, decided to do the opposite and were just as enthusiastic about the new direction.
Actually, one of the reasons that people such as Bob and myself have very little difficulty in making decisions in the first place is because we understand ourselves to be ready, willing, and able to reverse those decisions, with no embarrassment, should the need to do so arise because additional facts have come to our attention.
I never thought of myself as a dentist, but some colleagues in Tishman Realty and Construction have described me that way. I found out what they mean: that during in-house sessions I ask questions of them, and keep on asking questions, until I am certain that they have the answers I “drill down” until I reach the level at which they may not have completely thought out their answers, and sometimes, thereby, I reveal to them, and to myself, the weakness of our logic or evidence. I am then able to send them back to do more homework or re-examine the suppositions on which they based their recommendations. I’m perfectly willing to take, as a colleague’s reason, that his gut tells him this is the right direction, but I want to understand his reasons insofar as it is possible to explain them. One of my most-asked questions, my colleagues tell me, is “What are you trying to accomplish?”