Driving home from the city yesterday I was listening to a very interesting interview of Madeline Albright on NPR. Albright made a range of insightful observations about diplomacy, world affairs and the Presidency. During the course of the interview, one statement in particular jumped out at me. Albright said that she would rather have a President who was confident than a President who was certain. She noted that a confident President could take principled positions and stand for things that mattered, but would still have the good sense to listen to those around him and take counsel from a range of brilliant advisors. In contrast, a certain President would have no need for advisors because the appropriate course would be "clear" to him.
Madeline Albright's comments reminded me of a talk I heard Paul Graham give at Foo Camp a couple summers ago. Paul was discussing the attributes of successful enterpreneurs, and he argued that the best entrepreneurs were open minded and had good judgment. He contrasted that with failed entrepreneurs who were stubborn and had bad judgment. Paul stated that while having bad judgment could be a handicap for an entrepreneur, if you had both bad judgment and were stubborn, you would necessarily fail. I suppose in Graham's parlance, the President that Madeline Albright is looking for would be confident but open minded.
I am in complete agreement with Madeline Albright and Paul Graham. Startup success requires confidence but not certainty. I have worked with startup CEOs in the past who spent more time at board meetings defending their positions than listening to the board's feedback. Sure, some of the time those CEOs were right and some of the time the Board was wrong. But board meetings shouldn't be about certainty. The should be about confidence. The confidence to hear what other smart people have to say. The confidence to listen. The confidence to stand firm on things you believe are critical to the success of your company. And the confidence to change your position when clearer minds prevail. Like great Presidents, the best CEOs will have the character and the confidence to lead while listening. It isn't easy. But it can mean the difference between success and failure.