Must a leader be (perceived as being) full of certainty in order to be successful?

I read an article by Ron Elving about Paul Ryan’s VP nomination speech at the Republican convention. The piece includes the following:

Ryan turns on conservatives with his incandescent devotion to a set of ideas. He is steeped in his world view, and the electricity he exudes comes from his deep-seated sense of certainty. [emphasis added]

Ignoring, for now, the speech itself and the specific world-view espoused by Ryan (much of which I object to in a pretty strong way), I am intrigued by the author’s claim that certainty can lead a speaker to exude political “electricity”–that appearing (and being?) absolutely sure of something can generate political support and energy.

Our society strongly values people who stick with their fundamental values even when the going gets tough (and rightly so). “Flip-floppers” who are perceived to have publicly changed their positions due to changing political conditions are vilified as indecisive and as searching only for political convenience–a situation epitomized by John Kerry.

More recently, Mitt Romney has altered his opinions on a number of issues to shift significantly to the right of the fairly centrist or even left-learning positions he held earlier in his career. Even on the short timescale between the Republican primary and the general election, a Romney adviser famously gaffed that once the primaries are over, shifting to positions that make more sense in the general election would be as easy as “shaking an etch-a-sketch” and starting over. This comment was obviously jumped upon by his primary opponents as a signal of Romney’s inauthenticity.

Certainly, flip-flopping for strictly political purposes is frowned upon, and seems to be harmful politically, at least while people are still talking about it. President Obama’s “evolving” position on LGBT issues is a murkier area. To many of his supporters, in the lead-up to the 2008 election and his first several years in office, his position on gay marriage and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell seemed surprisingly far to the right and some say that his recent left-ward shift was really just an adjustment to what he really believed all along.

Situations in which a politician shifts her views in one direction (instead of going back and forth) seem somewhat more accepted, even if there is a suspicion of political strategy underlying the move.

For me to respect a politician the most (or, for that matter, any leader in any context), I must believe that this person is actually growing, learning, and exploring new perspectives deeply enough such they sometimes may change their opinion. John Maynard Keynes summed this up nicely by supposedly saying: “When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?” I expect no less of my leaders.

In general, I feel safer knowing a leader has more information than I do, more experience than I do, and more insight than I do. However, knowing the world is a complex place, and that I cannot possibly understand every important issue deeply, I also expect my leaders to realize this as well.

That being said, I also seem to have more confidence in a leader who can choose a course and stick with it–to APPEAR to have a large degree of certainty about this path, possibly based on some understanding he has beyond my limited knowledge which only leads me to my own uncertain conclusions.

Thus, I must be able to trust that a leader is continuously growing, that her views are changing on an ongoing basis as she learns, that her views are subject to change based on new information AND that she simultaneously appears certain about her chosen course of action. This is a very fine balancing act, indeed!

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