Persuadable: How Great Leaders Change Their Minds to Change the World

January 26, 2016


Al Pittampalli's new book argues that a genuine willingness for leaders to change their own minds it the ultimate competitive advantage.

The following excerpt comes from the beginning of Al Pittampalli's new book, Persuadable: How Great Leaders Change Their Minds to Change the World, being released today by HarperBusiness.

“The Changing Face of Leadership”

As President Obama and his top advisers contemplated how to attack the Pakistani compound allegedly housing Osama bin Laden, they began to discuss the possibility of a covert raid. This option was complex, and it put troops in imminent danger, but it also carried the potential for a great reward. In contrast to an unmanned drone strike or a B-2 bomber mission, the raid team would be able to positively identify the enemy, leaving no doubts that the man being targeted was in fact bin Laden. A raid team would also be able to collect any physical intelligence residing on the premises, a potential treasure trove of information that might aid in thwarting future terrorist attacks. But what if the Pakistani military—which was stationed dangerously close to the compound—engaged the raid team in a firefight? What if American troops were injured or killed? What if bin Laden wasn’t there? These were frightening questions that required answers. So, to further investigate the raid option, the administration called in the man who would ultimately be tapped to lead it, the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), Admiral William McRaven.

McRaven was an impressive figure. During his tenure leading JSOC, the success rate for missions in Iraq and Afghanistan surged from 35 percent to over 80 percent. McRaven’s teams had been responsible for the capture of Saddam Hussein and the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates (along with many classified accomplishments still unreleased). And McRaven certainly looks the part. He’s six foot one, broad shouldered, with perfect posture and an impeccable uniform. His three stars (soon to be four) only add to his domineering presence. But there was one thing about McRaven that was particularly exceptional, something that surprised many in the administration.

His humility.

McRaven was modest, open to suggestion, and willing to change his mind. In fact, from the very beginning, McRaven freely admitted that he didn’t have all the answers. After explaining the mission parameters for the first time, McRaven confessed, “Mr. President, we haven’t thoroughly tested this out yet and we don’t know if we can do it, but when we do, I’ll come back to you and I’ll tell you straight up.” Then McRaven did just that. He tested and concluded that the mission was viable—but still reminded everyone of its fallibility. “They’re gonna land on the compound and something is going to go wrong. They’re going to have to improvise, change the plan, go to Plan B, or wriggle their way out of a sticky situation.”

Over many meetings, the president and his team grilled McRaven, challenging his plans, second-guessing his thinking, looking for weaknesses. McRaven didn’t seem to mind; he appeared to approach this scrutiny without ego. He didn’t agree with every criticism, but Undersecretary Michèle Flournoy noted that in response to a good question, McRaven would calmly respond, “You know, I haven’t thought about that, but I need to.”

And McRaven wasn’t just paying lip service—he made substantial changes to his plans on the basis of others’ input. For example, when McRaven proposed having backup Chinook helicopters stationed on the Afghan-Pakistani border—to minimize the blowback from the Pakistani government for infringing on its sovereignty—President Obama countered that the SEALs needed backup more readily available in the event they had to fight their way out. McRaven was persuaded. The Chinooks would be flown deep into Pakistan, closer to the Abbottabad compound, ready to move.

On April 29, 2011, after a careful deliberation process with his team, President Obama officially ordered the Seal Team Six raid overseen by Admiral William McRaven. Later, the president said it was ultimately his confidence in McRaven that made the difference in going ahead with the raid. “He just never looks like he’s surprised by anything.” The president was right. During the raid, as McRaven communicated the real-time progress of the mission to the White House via secure link, one of the SEAL team’s two Black Hawk helicopters went down. McRaven was reportedly expressionless, relaying the news of the crash with a calm, casual voice. One of the participants on the call later said he felt like he might throw up, but not McRaven. When asked afterward to describe what happened, his explanation was drama free: the team had a contingency plan, executed that contingency plan, and continued on with the mission. And continue they did, successfully completing one of the most important military operations in United States history. 

This is a book about persuadability, the genuine willingness and ability to change your mind in the face of new evidence. Being persuadable requires rejecting absolute certainty, treating your beliefs as temporary, and acknowledging the possibility that no matter how confident you are about any particular opinion—you could be wrong. It involves actively seeking out criticism and counterarguments against even your most long-standing favored beliefs. Most important, persuadability entails evaluating those arguments as objectively as possible and updating your beliefs accordingly. In Persuadable, I’ll argue that persuadability is a vastly underappreciated advantage in business and life. It’s one of the most critical skills of modern leadership. But I won’t just explain why you should be persuadable. Distilling cutting-edge research from cognitive and social psychology, I’ll show you precisely how. Specifically, you’ll learn the seven practices of persuadable leaders:

Consider the Opposite

Update Your Beliefs Incrementally

Kill Your Darlings

Take the Perspectives of Others

Avoid Being Too Persuadable

Convert Early

Take On Your Own Tribe 

These simple yet powerful habits have accelerated the path to success for some of the best leaders in the world, and they have the potential to do the same for you.

The focus of this book—changing our own minds—may surprise you. And it’s understandable why: it’s unusual. Just stroll through the business section of any bookstore, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find any books dedicated to persuadability. Instead, you’ll find dozens of books promoting persuasiveness. Shelves are jam-packed with bold advice for converting others to your cause, featuring audacious titles like Get Anyone to Do Anything, How to Win Friends and Influence People, and my personal favorite, How to Persuade People Who Don’t Want to Be Persuaded. But as we all relentlessly pursue the one word, tactic, or principle that will help us convince someone else, we forget to ask ourselves an obvious question: is it possible I’m the one who needs to be convinced? What invaluable, potentially innovative information am I missing by focusing exclusively on persuading others?

One of the reasons why leaders fail to ask these questions is that they defy our traditional leadership archetype. Strong leaders—our culture teaches us—possess three Cs: confidence, conviction, and consistency. Those qualities are perhaps most famously embodied by General George S. Patton, the headstrong authoritarian with a big ego, unmatched audacity, and immutable resolve.

Which is why if you read the accounts of Admiral William McRaven, you might be as stunned as I was to learn that the man who led the daring mission to get Osama bin Laden is nothing like Patton. In fact, he’s nearly the opposite. McRaven is vigilant about being overconfident. He seems fully prepared to abandon an idea that no longer makes sense, and he doesn’t seem to care much at all about being consistent. Is it merely an anomaly that the most successful (now retired) military leader in the world doesn’t fit the traditional leadership archetype? Or is it a pattern?

From Persuadable by Al Pittampalli Copyright © 2016 by Al Pittampalli. Reprinted courtesy of Harper Business, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.


AL PITTAMPALLI is the author of Read This Before Our Next Meeting, a manifesto for transforming the way organizations hold meetings. As a business consultant, Al has helped organizations like NASA, Boeing, Hertz, and Nokia adapt to a fast-changing world. He is a former IT advisor at Ernst & Young LLP and lives in New York City.

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