The productive power of doubt. What if we lack the leaders we need because of how we think about doubt?

People tend not to like leaders who are unsure and who take time to make decisions. A key part of Dominic Cummings’s role as advisor to the British prime minister was ‘overcoming Boris Johnson’s floundering procrastination’ and forcing him to make a decision. Nicola Reindorp, the incoming chief executive of Crisis Action, held herself back from CEO roles fearing her own doubtfulness. Then she decided to investigate the issue and discovered another side to doubt that is productive and powerful, not the destructive doubt of paralysis and pain, but a productive form of questioning and discovery.

I don’t know. I’m not sure. I have doubt. When did you last hear someone in a position of authority utter these words? How did you react?

Research suggests your response was probably negative. For instance, a Pew 2015 study showed decisiveness was the characteristic Americans most valued in leaders. This holds up internationally too.

And the converse – when people are indecisive, not sure what to do, in doubt? There’s a litany of stories of the negative impact of those that dither. In her autobiography, former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard cites her predecessor’s prevarication as a prime factor in her decision to contest his leadership of the Labor party and the country. Vogue editor Anna Wintour (cited here) credits the vacillation of a former boss spurring her signature decisive style (as seen here). Amid the fallout surrounding the departure of British prime ministerial advisors Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain was the insight into their roles ‘overcoming Johnson’s floundering procrastination’ and forcing their boss to make a decision.

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