The Danger of Conviction

What do you do if you can no longer live with the doubt…? You try to cure yourself. And the best cure for doubt is over-conviction. ~ Richard Holloway (2013)

As a Scot, I have been intrigued by the developing rhetoric of the politicians on either side of the upcoming referendum question. They hone their arguments in an attempt to win over voters to one or other side of the debate. Should Scotland be an independent country? Simple enough question, but it sits atop a mountain of uncertainty, doubt and fear.

source: with thanks to Marf (Martha Richler)

source: with thanks to Marf (Martha Richler)

Many people have already made up their minds, and nothing the politicians do during the campaign will sway them from their conviction. They are people who are clear on the question, they are certain what the answer is, and they are in no doubt. But, ultimately, the people who will determine the outcome, are the currently undecided people of Scotland. They remain uncertain, they have doubts, they have no clear conviction.

And what is it that people want to hear from their politicians and leaders when they are unsure? What engages people who are having doubts and uncertainties about the future? Personally, I want to hear leaders tell me that they understand my concerns, that they too have those feelings of uncertainty, that doubt and fear have entered their head too. I am unlikely to respond or relate to yet another ‘conviction’ speech. The sort of argument that suggests that there is no room for doubt. And, yet, what I am hearing, from both sides of the referendum campaign, are entrenched arguments, conviction statements, and a total absence of humility.

Both sides appear to have forgotten who the people are who will decide this referendum, and how they are thinking. They are people who are more likely to respond and listen to someone who shows humility, who expresses the fears they are feeling, who acknowledges that this is not an easy decision to make, and who makes the arguments for their position with sensitivity and empathy.

I would love to hear the leaders of the pro-independence campaign having the courage in the next few weeks to stand up and reveal that they have had doubts and knew that there were risks associated with independence. And, how refreshing it would be if the anti-independence spokespeople acknowledged the ‘appeal’ and legitimacy of independence for the people of Scotland. By doing this, they would be putting themselves in the shoes of those who have fears and concerns, but who hold the key to the result.

We are unlikely to hear either party adopt this stance, however, as both would see it as revealing a weakness in their ‘conviction’. They mistakenly believe that total conviction is what will see them win the race. So, they will go on attempting to score points against the other, win the ‘intellectual’ arguments, and demonstrate the inaccuracies in the other’s data. And, all the time, they will lose the hearts and minds of the unsure, the doubtful and the uncertain.

The best leaders do not have all the answers. They acknowledge and recognise the challenges that embarking on uncharted journeys will pose. They speak the language of people’s concerns and fears. They paint pictures of where they are going, and what it will be like when everyone gets there. They help people to see that the pain of getting there is worth the effort. These are the reasons why doubtful people eventually follow great leaders. Not conviction.


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