For decades doctors believed that stomach ulcers are caused by stress and spicy foods. Something many people still believe today. Ask a number of people what causes stomach ulcers and you’re most likely to hear one of them say stress.
You may be surprised to find out that in 1985 the Australian doctor Barry Marshall publish research proving that stomach ulcers are caused by the bacteria Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) and not by stress or spicy foods!
The link between bacteria and ulcers was discovered as early as 1940 by Dr. A. Stone Freedberg a cardiologist from Harvard. Sadly, Freedberg’s boss pressured him to abandon his research and encouraged him to focus on something that would be easier to prove.
In 1964 the Greek doctor John Lykoudis presented findings that antibiotics cured ulcers, but his evidence was ignored by the scientific community. Instead he was fined 4000 drachmas in 1968 by a disciplinary committee for treating his ulcer patients using antibiotics.
The message from the medical community was clear. Anyone suggesting that ulcers were not caused by stress resulted in ridicule and career suicide.
Despite the opposition from the medical community Barry Marshall persevered. As Marshall struggled to prove the link between H. pylori and ulcers with lab mice (as H. pylori affects only primates) and prohibited from experimenting on people – Marshal became desperate. He decided to experiment on himself. On June 12, 1984 Marshall took some of H. pylori from the stomach of a patient, made a brew in a Petri dish and ended the day by drinking the bacteria! After a few days Marshall found himself developing ulcers. After a biopsy to confirm his findings he treated himself with antibiotics and was fully cured. Marshall’s experiment was publishedin 1985 in the Medical Journal of Australia.
Even after going to this extreme to prove bacteria causes stomach ulcers, Marshall’s findings were not widely accepted by the medical community. Despite the mounting evidence, stress was still believed to be the leading cause of ulcers. And many believed bacteria could not survive in the highly acidic stomach environment.
Finally, in 1994 the National Institutes of Health accepted Marshall’s hypothesis, recognising that stomach ulcers are most commonly caused by H. pylori and antibiotics are recommended as a treatment.
Eleven years later, in 2005, Barry Marshall and his colleague Robin Warren won the Nobel Prize for Medicine for their work.
As leaders we should always question new ideas and ensure they’re supported by fact. However, when there is mounting evidence and experience that shows our ideas and beliefs are wrong, we should not resist change. This is why wise leaders keep their strong opinions, weakly held.
Let’s explore this idea in more detail.
Strong Options, Weakly Held
Adopting the practice of having “strong opinions, weakly held” is especially important in uncertain times. Bob Sutton describes the origin and power of the this idea in more detail:
”Perhaps the best description I’ve ever seen of how wise people act comes from the amazing folks at Palo Alto’s Institute for the Future. A couple years ago, I was talking the Institute’s Bob Johansen about wisdom, and he explained that – to deal with an uncertain future and still move forward – they advise people to have ‘strong opinions, which are weakly held’. . . .
Bob explained that weak opinions are problematic because people aren’t inspired to develop the best arguments possible for them, or to put forth the energy required to test them. Bob explained that it was just as important, however, to not be too attached to what you believe because, otherwise, it undermines your ability to ‘see’ and ‘hear’ evidence that clashes with your opinions. This is what psychologists sometimes call the problem of ‘confirmation bias.’” – Bob Sutton, Strong Opinions, Weakly Held
When dealing with the complex practices of strategy, leadership and innovation in an uncertain and changing environment wise leaders keep their strong opinions, weakly held.
Let’s begin by exploring the idea of strong opinions. Strong opinions are not fundamental truths. Rather opinions are a working hypothesis used to guide your thinking, decisions and actions. Dictionary.com suggests the following definition. An ￼opinion￼ is:
“a belief or judgment that rests on grounds insufficient to produce complete certainty.”
A strong opinion is one based on the current best available information and knowledge. It’s a belief for which you have some evidence and one that you’re prepared to defend. Strong opinions are supported by strong arguments that validate your point of view.
Consider the alternative – weak opinions. When you have weak opinions:
- You don’t develop robust arguments to support weak opinions.
- Weak opinions don’t challenge people to debate and test the validity of the supporting argument.
- Weak opinions don’t inspire the confidence necessary for you to take action, commit resources and accept risk.
Wise leaders have strong opinions that give them the confidence to take bold action.
What is meant by weakly held? Holding an opinion weakly means:
- You’ll listen to contradictory views and opinions.
- You’re looking for evidence that may contradict your strong opinion.
- You’re open changing your mind and your actions.
The strong opinions you hold today are based on your past experieince. While strong opinions encourage you to develop strong arguments, if your opinions are too strongly held you are much less likely to consider contradictory evidence and new information.
Consider the strongly held belief by the medical community. They held too strongly to their belief that stomach ulcers are caused by stress and spicy food. This strongly held belief resulted in smart people ignoring contradictory evidence for decades, causing many unnecessary suffering.
Leaders with strongly held opinions invest too much time and energy, supporting their existing beliefs. They fail to consider new information and ignore contradictory feedback. As a results they continue to make decisions and take action based on outdated ideas.
Wise leaders are willing to be wrong. Rather than doggedly defending their ideas and opinions until death. These leaders understand that being wrong makes room for change.
Wise Leaders Act, Whilst Being Open to Change
”To acquire knowledge, one must study; but to acquire wisdom, one must observe.” – Marilyn vos Savant
It’s understandable that in uncertain times leaders are hesitant to act until they have all the facts. However, this approach causes leaders to get stuck in circular discussion, debate and analysis. In contrast leaders who have strong opinions, weakly held are released from this trap. They are able to take action based on the best available information whilst being open to change.
Wise leaders see taking action as a way to gain the feedback necessary to validate their ideas.
Take action “as if” your strong opinions are true.
- Acting “as if” reminds you that you’re taking action on the best available information.
- Acting “as if” reminds you that you may be wrong.
- Acting “as if” keeps you open to learning and changing direction.
Instead of seeking to find the right answers, acting “as if” means you focus on chipping away at the various ways that you may be wrong. Resulting in you becoming more right over time.
Wise leaders emphasise experimentation over theory. They understand that experimentation is a requirement for agility.
Leading into the Future Demands Agility
“Be stubborn on vision, flexible on details“ – Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon
Wise leaders are future focused. Seeking to create a future different from the past. The trouble is, creating a new future doesn’t happen in a straight line. So you need to take action and be ready to change direction when the need arises.
The fastest way of moving into the future is through defining and validating a series of hypotheses. Formulate an hypothesis based on the best available information – adopt a strong opinion. Then act, seeking feedback, adjusting as you go – weakly held.
Act “as if” you are right until you’re able to disprove your theory, In this way you are able to make meaningful progress towards your envisioned new future.
Wise leaders have clear, well-defined beliefs that guide their work, whilst remaining open to change.
In uncertain times, it’s wise to hold your strong opinions, weakly. Then act as if the knowledge which supports your current opinion is true – until you become aware it’s not. In doing this you learn to take actions as if you’re right, all the while you are listening and observing as if you’re wrong.
Try the following when you’re next faced with a complex issue to resolve:
- What strong opinions do you have about the issue you’re working on?
- Do you have a clear argument and evidence in support of your opinion?
Then as you take action remain open and keep asking yourself the following:
- Is there evidence that contradicts what I believe to be true?
- What would have to be true for me to change my mind?
Lastly, every month take time to reflect on the following question:
- What have I changed my mind about over the past two to three weeks?