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A Leader Without a Doubt

He never expressed doubt in anything, I think that was his – one of his strengths. He never expressed doubt. Once he’d made his mind up that something was right it was right.

– General Pinochet’s personal driver, commenting on their private conversations about politics and his own admiration for the late dictator.

I was kidding about the source. It was Lady Thatcher’s former driver Denis Oliver, commenting about her when interviewed by the BBC this morning (only gender was changed in the quote). Why do people so often take complete absence of doubt to be a strength in a leader, even when they disagree with that leader’s views? Can they be persuaded otherwise?

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6 Comment on this post

  1. My first guess would be that it is some kind of (albeit somewhat indirect) manifestation of the Stockholm syndrome. Throughout history leaders have tended to lead to a very significant extent through fear, and you avoid cognitive dissonance by convincing yourself that the person you fear to disobey is a Really Good Person. And when quality that fairly obviously allows a person to lead by fear is absence of doubt. The one who is questioning everything terrifies nobody into obedience. The leader-by-fear decides on a strategy and woe betide anyone who stands in their way. Any evidence of doubt would only encourage disobedience.

    Can they be persuaded otherwise? Well yes, of course, provided one has the skills and motivation to bother. But perhaps a better question is to what extent, or how quickly, we can bring about such a change in the general population (as opposed to one or two unfortunate individuals we might happen to pick on).

    Of course, from the perspective of trying to clarify our ethical intuitions we also need to clarify to what extent,, and why, we see this as a bad thing. At one level it is obvious: the leader who knows no doubt is likely to make bad decisions. But we need to be careful with this. Paralysis by analysis is a real thing, and it is possible for a leader to express too much doubt.

    Probably the greatest obstacle to bringing about the desired change is the self-reinforcing nature of this phenomenon, whereby leaders-who-doubt are considered weak, and therefore lose support and credibility thus confirming the view that leaders-who-doubt are weak. Thatcher’s driver was in this sense quite correct: by refusing to question (or perhaps being incapable of questioning) doubt, Thatcher commanded respect. Consequently, she was seen as, and in some sense was, a successful leader – at least if measured by the duration of her premiership.

    1. “Paralysis by analysis is a real thing, and it is possible for a leader to express too much doubt.”
      I totally agree with that Peter, but when “too much doubt” is equated with “any doubt”, something has gone very wrong!

      The obvious problem with always having no doubt, of course, is that you’re likely to make serious mistakes that you never question. Someone I expressed these thoughts to told me that Lady Thatcher’s former minister Michael Portillo has said that what most impressed him about Thatcher was that, on every issue, she always immediately knew what her view was, and never had to think at all in order to know what she thought. Combined with an absolute lack of doubt, that’s should be a terrifying trait, not grounds for any kind of admiration!

      I agree with you about the self-reinforcing nature of the phenomenon. It’s no good changing the leaders without changing people’s minds about whether reasonable doubt is a virtue in a leader.

  2. Anthony Drinkwater

    The question of doubt doesn’t just apply to political leadership.
    The goalkeeper who doubts that he will get to the ball before the opposing attacker will fail to win the ball; the horn player who doubts that he is about to make his entry at the right time will fluff his entry; the lover who expresses that he doubts his love is probably not in love….
    Concerning politics, we don’t elect people who are likely to abandon their election pledges because they are no longer sure that they were right. And, coming back to Mrs Thatcher’s reign, I don’t recall that Arthur Scargill has ever expressed any doubts on his appallingly counter-productive leadership of the miners’s strike, either.
    There’s plenty of criticism that I could make of Mrs T and her legacy, but the question of never showing doubt? I doubt it.

    1. I don’t really agree with this. There is a world of difference between banishing doubt during those crucial seconds it takes to save a goal and doing so during a period of leadership stretching over years. A better equivalent would be the goalkeeper who never questions that he has the best possible technique and therefore never looks for ways to improve. Similarly, one can perfectly well gain a justified reputation for keeping one’s promises without refusing ever to question one’s beliefs and priorities.

  3. Today, I went to the beachfront with my kids. I found a sea
    shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and
    said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She put the shell to her ear
    and screamed. There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear.
    She never wants to go back! LoL I know this is completely off
    topic but I had to tell someone!

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