Conviction, of choice and reason, has been one of the hardest qualities of good leadership for me to develop. An appreciative and empathetic mind can usually find multiple angles from which to appreciate a story, which makes it hard to call someone or something clearly wrong. Usually if you’ve entered the mind of the other party or explored enough angles, you recognize why the other story may make sense.
Somewhere, there is a line to make between being overly empathetic and a fear of being human – of experiencing guilt. Hanging up on a decision is a key way to flame out as a leader. In such a case you become no more than an invisible man, someone who refuses to run the risk of their own humanity.
There can be ways around this. One of my favorite anecdotes is from Zizek’s story about suicide bombers and their own belief process. In how he tells it, the suicide bomber isn’t as convinced of their cause as we think they are before they commit their act. All the way up to it they have doubt weighing on their mind, and it’s only through the act of the suicide that they prove it to themselves that they were actually committed to the cause.
Empathy can muddy the waters in a way that becomes entrenching and ambiguous. You reach a point over time where you are mired in cognitive dissonance – balancing two opposing mindsets at the same time. Recently I discovered a possible out to this process.
Picture the mind of a suicide bomber just before he blows himself up. Do you really think it’s very different than your own at this moment, where you have been teetering over a choice for the last hour or even days? The severity of his choice is greater than your own, but this is precisely why we shouldn’t expect him to have any easier time convincing himself this is the right course of action. Where your choice is between sticking to your diet for your upcoming birthday dinner, he is erasing himself from his family and culture, all with the aim of serving his country or cause.
If a person in that situation can commit themselves to an action so severe, while you, with your decades of education and first world dilemmas, deliberate back and forth over some inconsequential matter, how does that reflect on yourself?
The example is important because I think it points to a very special mechanism you have to develop if you’re going to be a leader. You have to have a “suicide button” for yourself, a button that says you’ve committed to something with absolutely no regard for the consequences of it to yourself. In fact, you might as well look at the consequences in the same light – certain death. This becomes like the Stoic practice of negative visualization. The worst thing that can happen is that you are destroyed. If you’re prepared for this in light of the choice and the possible benefits for you and the organization, you might just have the conviction needed to carry the group through.
The suicide button is a model for yourself to use against the back-and-forth. For the bomber, hitting his button is actually the final note by which he convinces himself that he is indeed a believer in the cause.
Where leadership depends so much on a vision-driver, a person who holds the accountability stick, you have to be very sure of your decisions and the ultimate success of your organization, even against overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Your job is to know when and where you must push your suicide button and just dive in.
In a remarkable irony, I originally wrote this draft post several years ago and shied away from publishing for whatever reason, probably based in fear/embarrassment. I’m just now coming back out of blog hiding, hoping nor to repeat that pattern.