Covid inquiry: Sorry seems to be the hardest word - the value of doubt in leadership

·4-min read
The Tory chairman told Sky News: “Of course I’m sorry, as the Prime Minister is sorry.” (PA Wire)
The Tory chairman told Sky News: “Of course I’m sorry, as the Prime Minister is sorry.” (PA Wire)

This morning, Oliver Dowden apologised for the government’s handling of the Covid crisis.

Responding to a damning report published by MPs, the Tory chairman told Sky News: “Of course I’m sorry, as the Prime Minister is sorry.”

“This was an unprecedented crisis, a once in 100 years event. There isn’t some perfect rule book that we could follow, we were having to adapt and move very quickly and of course we would do some things differently with hindsight.”

Yesterday, however, Cabinet Office minister Stephen Barclay refused to apologise no less than 11 times in response to the same inquiry. This was perhaps less of a surprise than Dowden’s statement - apologies and politics rarely go hand in hand, because to apologise is to admit that, in some sense, you were wrong. And to be wrong, or at least uncertain of being right, is seldom appreciated in the realm of leadership.

Many argue that it should be, though. Leaders able to register doubt – to engage with nuance and learn from mistakes – are in fact more likely to get things right. And whilst public mentality has shifted, particularly in the last century, to trust confidence – those who tread surely, and talk clearly – it’s important not to necessarily conflate this with competence.

Research has confirmed this tendency. Humans naturally enjoy certainty, so if someone else is happy to take the reins and seems sure of themselves in doing so, we will probably let them. But this strategy crumples in the face of uncertainty, explains Mark Vernon in a BBC essay on political doubt. “Calls for action easily mutate into demands for certainty, where certainty is not to be had. Doubt-intolerance grows.”

An improved stance, he suggests, “may be to accept that doubt is a perennial problem for democracies,” and embrace the “good-enough” politician, as opposed to the “perfect” model. “What the good-enough politician might cultivate is not delusions of omnipotent power, the certainties that know no doubt. Instead, they could cultivate the energy inherent in the kind of politics that equips others to pioneer change.”

Others have pointed to the trickle-down benefits of leaders who listen more readily to diverse ideas. Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts, has noted the statistically higher “correct” decisions made by leaders who more frequently question their own decisions.

“Introverted leaders often deliver better outcomes than extroverts do,” she explains, “because when they are managing proactive employees, they’re much more likely to let those employees run with their ideas, whereas an extrovert can, quite unwittingly, get so excited about things that they’re putting their own stamp on things, and other people’s ideas might not as easily then bubble up to the surface.”

It is by no means always a matter of introversion and extroversion, though. Nicola Reindorp, CEO of Crisis Action, also noted the disproportionate tendency for women and ethnic minority leaders to doubt themselves in the workplace, and decided to investigate the issue after realising doubt was holding her back from leadership roles.

“There’s a litany of stories of the negative impact of those that dither,” she writes. “Amid the fallout surrounding the departure of British prime ministerial advisors Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain was the insight into their roles ‘overcoming Johnson’s floundering procrastination’ and forcing their boss to make a decision.”

“But this is only part of the story. There is another side to doubt that is productive and powerful. This is not the destructive doubt of paralysis and pain but a productive form of questioning and discovery.”

Reindorp suggests “rebranding” doubt as strength, rather than weakness. “Doubt spurs curiosity and learning. What is it that I need to know? What is it that I can learn to do? Doubt generates an openness to feedback. Perhaps others can advise me how to improve?”

The issue became ever more pressing over the course of the pandemic, as the contrast between science and politics threw the concept of uncertainty into stark relief.

Jim Al-Khalili, author of The World According to Physics, wrote in the Guardian last year: “it has never been more important to communicate the way science works. In politics, admitting a mistake is seen as a form of weakness. It’s quite the opposite in science, where making mistakes is a cornerstone of knowledge. Replacing old theories and hypotheses with newer, more accurate ones allows us to gain a deeper understanding of a subject.”

Science values doubt over certainty, Al-Khalili explains, but when the public was confronted with such a complex and unknowable entity as Covid, trust was not always readily given to the scientists. Instead, people turned to political leaders for answers about what to do next, understandably seeking direct action over cautious consideration.

As such, it’s clear that the problem is not solely the burden of leaders. Those being led can also embrace uncertainty – in appreciating that action cannot always be immediate, and permitting backtracking when helpful and necessary. Doubt is not an excuse to waver needlessly, but nor should certainty always trump ambiguity.

Mutual trust is a two-way street, and if we allow leaders a little more space to admit their own doubt, we might all end up with better results.

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