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Certainty; I'm certain it's a bad thing...

...."Decisive action in the hour of need denotes the hero but may not succeed" Belloc.

My best man once told me about the first time he walked into the library at Durham University. He said it made him aware of how ignorant he was and to those that knew him it left him with a humility that he did not let go of. John was a later learner, studying for his first degree when he was nearly forty. Certainty of knowledge in any sphere of life can often become the enemy of discovery, of learning, and of betterment ... certainty in social circles is often called bigotry, it can manifest itself in intolerance and exclusion; so isn't it strange that in the organisations we work in, many people like to rely on the people of certainty.

We are guided to respect those who display certainty, to get behind the captain of the team who displays unswerving confidence, who speaks with conviction and displays little if any room for doubt or uncertainty ... and there is an obvious irony in all this because generally, these people display certainty about topics that none of us have any right to claim a comprehensive knowledge of, and about which experience would suggest that there is more that the human race has yet to discover than it knows; markets, motivation, human behaviour, and economics to name but a few. And even though examples of misguided confidence abound and the highway of life is littered with the human and corporate casualties of uninformed certainty, this doesn't stop entire organisations and the people within them from heading merrily to hell on a handcart because someone was certain of something.

Mark Twain famously said "It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so." Politicians should take note; the fact that they won't is of course probably one of the few things that we can be sure of. I read a great article in Management Today by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a man whose name is surely an anagram of many things; I'll let you work on that. In the article, Dr. Tomas uses the simple but elegant matrix I have pasted above to highlight and illustrate different possible combinations of confidence and competence.

I really like this matrix because of its simplicity and ease of use. One look at it made me start to analyse myself, of course, my wife was quick to tell me that when it comes to my guitar playing I am firmly in the desperately deluded quadrant, and I had thought I was just not achieving my potential. But of course, as I'm only human the real fun to be had with this matrix was when I started to categorise those around me because I found it reinforced my thinking about the divisive role that self-help and false confidence-building has had upon many individuals and organisations.

Some of you may have seen a much-used picture of a small young cat looking in a mirror with the reflection of a lion looking back. The image is designed to show that you will be perceived as you think of yourself, the old "fake it to make it" principle. Where the analogy fails is if the cat were to actually come across a lion; the impact of self-delusion would be all too obvious. There is nothing wrong with being a small ginger cat; just find a place where you can play to your strengths.

I have often wondered how much of a role the presence of fear plays in our apparent need for certainty, a leader's fear of saying that they are not sure, that they don't know, that they can't predict the future with certainty. There is nothing wrong with uncertainty, I think we are only kidding ourselves when we convince ourselves of the need for it and I think we are insulting people's intelligence when we advocate it.

I was always certain that I should be suspicious of people who are certain; should I continue to be certain of this anymore?

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