Post by M.J. Ryan, contributing Women On Business writer
William Faulkner once said that writers needed to “kill their little darlings.” It’s a message about how, in order for inspiration to enter, we need to let go of the ideas we’re so in love with to make room for something better. It’s a willingness that everyone in business needs these days.
I was reminded of this when I read a story on why J.P. Morgan did better in the financial meltdown than other investment banks. The article points out that the CEO Jamie Dimon is known not only for holding strong opinions, but letting go of his passionate position when someone on his team presents a compelling argument. His leadership meetings are like “Italian family dinners,” with everyone throwing out their opinions vociferously. Said Bill Daley, the head of corporate responsibility and a former Secretary of Commerce, “People were challenging Jamie, debating him, telling him he was wrong. It was nothing like I’d seen in a Bill Clinton cabinet meeting, or anything I’d ever seen in business.”
This willingness is a huge competitive advantage during times of change. It allows us to be open to new information rather than stay loyal to our own surety or status as “the one in charge.” Contrast that to a CEO I know who is leading his organization into bankruptcy. He refuses to listen to the people he hired to advise him because he’s so attached to the belief that he knows best. The people around him are quietly looking for other jobs.
We all have beliefs we hold onto. Under stress, we tend to hold tighter. Which is precisely the opposite of what we should be doing. When things around us are changing, rather than clutching our opinions like a security blanket, we need to examine them critically. That means having a willingness to admit, even if only to yourself, that you don’t have all the answers. To invite challenges and seek out contrary opinions—“Tell me where my thinking is wrong here” “What am I missing?” “What else should we be considering?”
In the movie “Thirteen Days” about the Cuban missile crisis, you see JFK, who previously accepted unquestioningly what the generals told him about the Bay of Pigs operation which led to a fiasco, now asking all kinds of “dumb” questions and refusing to accept the experts’ assumptions. Many historians believe that it was his refusal to heed his generals that averted a nuclear war. He insisted they find another way—and they finally did.
When we’re entering unknown territory, as much as possible we should be willing to ask dumb questions and be strong enough to give up on our most cherished ideas when a better one comes along. As a Chinese proverb says, “To be uncertain is to be uncomfortable, but to be certain is ridiculous.”