It’s better to be right than first.
We’ve talked often here about narratives in the past (see here and here) and why it is so critical for senior leaders to look for evidence when making decisions and developing strategies to achieve corporate objectives. Sunday’s Washington Post featured an article titled “Amanda Knox is innocent. But are the facts enough to change minds?” The piece was a review of the new documentary on Netflix which delves into the details of Knox’s case in an attempt to change the very public opinion formed without any hint of evidence of the facts. This was a public opinion that desired confirmation of peoples’ dark desires to find a villain that fit a particular narrative.
The article also discusses two other documentaries confronting fictional narratives: Denial, which considers a legal case brought by a British man who claimed the Holocaust never happened and The Witness which debunks the narrative that Kitty Genovese’s murder was watched by numerous people who did nothing to avoid getting involved.
So what does any of this have to do with leadership?
Be careful what you chase. In the case of Amanda Knox, the agenda was largely set by a journalist working within the internet news cycle and desire to gain the most clicks on his stories. His sources were one-sided and his stories were not fact-checked. Yet rather than getting called out for his reporting, the response fueled the case into a spiral descent into a very plausible, understandable and truly unjust outcome for Knox. The police and prosecutor ignored evidence because Knox fit their stereotype of an American college girl in Europe.
I’m still surprised by how many business and government leaders chase meaningless or, worse, harmful metrics in support of their own beliefs based on some fictional narrative or a deeply flawed understanding of what drives the bottom line.
We’ve all met the boss who got ahead by wearing out seven cars as a regional salesman. It seems natural for him to push his sales staff to make more calls and make that a metric for evaluation. I have had to sit with clients to discuss the difference between the number of sales calls made and sales closed. I ask if the leader is happy with a 50% increase in calls. Yes, comes the answer. Would you give the salesman a raise? Yes, comes the answer. What if that 50% increase in calls yields no increase in sales? Then comes the blank stare with the leader not comprehending how that could be possible.
In the same way, the police and prosecutors in the Knox case could not believe that any evidence would exonerate her, so they didn’t look for or consider exculpatory evidence.
Good business and government leaders, like good scientists, actively look for evidence that falsifies their theories. Only then can you be somewhat certain (you can never be completely certain) that the path you are charting for your organization’s future is a sound one.
If you are chasing Facebook likes or internet clicks or LinkedIn profile views, you’re likely looking to be first rather than being right. Being right takes time because it means figuring out what is important and seeking evidence. That means truth and the openness to that truth, regardless which direction it takes you.
Being a good analyst and a good leader means a lifetime of work to rid yourself of biases in search of truth, which comes from evidence. That takes time. If you are a leader, ask for evidence. Any time one of your subordinates says anything close to “everybody knows,” send him or her out and ask them to come back with actual evidence.
Looking back at historical examples, we often shake our heads and wonder what people were thinking back then. Think about how many people in this country are being exonerated every week of old crimes based on DNA evidence years after trials. British leaders during WWI genuinely believed they could identify the best potential military leaders based on facial features and bumps on the head (phrenology), something which we laugh at today. In multiple examples in war, personal claims of success are usually undermined by photographic evidence (see Tami Davis Biddle’s excellent Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare). Even in the present day, legal experts and courts are coming to see that eyewitness accounts are questionable given the variance in how people remember events based on their inherent biases.
This doesn’t mean people are inherently bad or evil. Any college methodology class teaches biases and how all people have them. Working quickly to come to a conclusion will most often lead you to confirm whatever bias you have, as did the prosecutors in the Knox case.
Leadership and strategy take time. It is better to be right than first. When you have a great idea, think about how it could be wrong. Think about how you would attack the premise. Think about what evidence you would need to find to falsify it. Ask yourself whether you’re chasing speed or accuracy. Teach your people to respect evidence by your own example.