Persuadable: A book review by Bob Morris

PersuadablePersuadable: How Great Leaders Change Their Minds to Change the World
Al Pittampalli
HarperBusiness/Imprint of Harper Collins (January 2016)

Why leaders should demand to know whatever they need to know, especially if it is not what they think they know…but in fact don’t

Those who are persuadable have a mindset that is both willing and able – indeed eager — to consider information and opinions that question their cherished assumptions and premises. The healthiest organizations are those in which principled dissent is not merely encouraged; in fact, it is required.

This is what Al Pittampalli has in mind when suggesting that being persuadable demonstrates “the genuine willingness and ability to change your mind in the face of new evidence. Being persuadable requires rejecting absolute certainty, treating your beliefs as temporary, and acknowledging the possibility that no matter how confident you are about any particular opinion – you could be wrong. It involves actively seeking out criticism and counterarguments against even your most long-standing favored beliefs. Most important, persuadability entails evaluating those arguments as objectively as possible and updating your beliefs accordingly.”

I agree with Pittampalli that persuadability is “a vastly underappreciated advantage in business and life.” He identifies and explains seven practices of persuadable leaders, practices distilled from cutting edge research from cognitive and social psychology. Here they are:

1. Consider the Opposite
2. Update Your Beliefs Incrementally
3. Kill Your Darlings
4. Take the Perspective of Others
5. Avoid Being Too Persuadable
6. Convert Early
7. Take on Your Own Tribe

“These simple yet powerful habits have accelerated the path to success for some of the best leaders in the world, and they have the potential to do the same for you.”

I cite the observation by Voltaire to suggest that, with rare exception, people who are unpersuadable are unreliable sources for information and especially for counsel. There are several people I know who feel threatened by – and indeed resent – information and opinion that differ from theirs. Paradoxically, at least in my experience, those who possess the greatest self-confidence are most persuadable as Pattampalli defines it.

These are among the several dozen passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of his coverage:

o Hedgehogs and Foxes: ACCURACY(Pages 21-29)
o Changing Course: AGILITY (29-36)
o The Supershrinks: GROWTH (36-43)
o The Autonomous Leader (47-49)
o Ralph Waldo Emerson, Joseph Campbell, and the Culture of Heroic Defiance (51-55)
o The Illusion of Nonconformity (61-65)
o The Flip-Flop Hunter (70-75)
o Abraham Lincoln, Master of Reversals (79-83)
o The Motivated Confirmation Bias: Why We Like Ourselves Too Much for the Facts to Count (88-92)
o The Unmotivated Confirmation Bias: Why Not Mattering Can Still Matter (92-99)
o The Art of Sacrifice (122-124)
o Lean Entrepreneurs and the Fastest Way to Truth (124-130)
o Why Power Has a Difficult Time Perspective Taking (144-147)
o Recruit Others to Help You Kill Your Darlings (134-140)

Note: Pittampalli is spot-on when stressing the importance of perspective taking to effective leadership. Think of it as “strategic emotional intelligence” to help gain an advantage, to be sure, but also to nourish a relationship of mutual trust and respect, not only in the workplace but in all other dimensions of human experience.

o Develop a Habit of Perspective Taking (153-154)
o The $125 Spoon and Other Costs of Being Too Persuadable (159-162)
o Beware “The Resistance” (165-166)
o How to Be Decisive without Being Close-Minded(167-168)
o Persuadable Leaders and Accelerate Collective Progress (173-174)
o How Social Movements Happen (174-177)
o Three Degrees of Influence (180-183)
o The End of the End Zone? (183-186)
o The Benefit of Leniency, and, The Importance of Being Flexible (191-195)
o Challenging Your Own Tribe (197-201

Here is a brief, representative selection of Pattampalli’s comments on four persuadable leaders:

On Abraham Lincoln: “The story of the Great Emancipator is a complex one filled with inconsistencies [about slavery, colonization, and allowing ’the Colored man’ to vote]. And inconsistency, despite its detractors, is what is often required in great leadership…You can’t evaluate consistency or inconsistency [e.g. Abraham Lincoln’s ‘flip-flops’] without looking at the context that surrounds it. Without all the facts and influences, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to determine whether someone is acting with integrity or not.”

On Jeff Bezos: “Unsatisfied with patiently waiting to be convinced that his favored beliefs [about digital books] were wrong, Bezos was intent on killing them himself. And it paid off — big. Amazon and its Kindle device dominate the digital book world…Ordinary open-mindedness leads to ordinary growth and agility, but as Bezos proved, active open-mindedness leads to extraordinary growth and agility.”

On what makes most of billionaire Ray Dalio’s investment decisions so successful: “Dalio doesn’t hold a mysterious almanac from the future that tells him which bets to make, like Biff Tannen from Back from the Future II. In fact, the secret to Dalio’s accuracy doesn’t lie in what he knows. The secret is in how he thinks.”

On Alan Mulally: He “saved Ford Motor Company, not by staying the course but by continually changing course in response to new data…To accommodate the unexpected delay [of introducing a new model, the Ford Edge], Mulally’s overall plan for Ford would have to change. But that was the whole point. This mindset is the essence of agile leadership.”

One final and, yes, obvious point: The fact that someone is persuadable by no means reduces the need to be persuasive when attempting to convince that person to think and behave differently than they would otherwise. All great leaders will give thoughtful consideration to information that is valid, to logic that is solid, and to evidence that is sufficient and (if possible) verifiable. They also have built-in, shock-proof crap detectors.

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