Advocacy important for good leaders to learn

Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, March 6, 2017

Everybody has an opinion. What is fascinating in the winter of 2017 is that everyone seems to feel an obligation to express it and share it. Six billion texts are sent daily; 8,796 photos are sent on Snapchat per second.

Professor Zakary Tormala, professor of marketing at Stanford Business School, has done some research on advocacy, and he suggests that “anecdotally people are expressing their opinions way more than they used to.” Duh. But where Tormala goes next is really interesting — he asks, “what drives advocacy, what compels people to argue a point of view?” Whether it be about Trump or the local burrito joint, social media is the outlet to tell the world what you think, to give them a piece of your mind.

The current world order (or disorder) is fractured upon multiple lines — each with a virulent advocacy. And the subtext of personal advocacy, written, verbal or video, is to “shape people’s behavior.” Leaving aside politics, this is exactly what happens in every company management meeting from a Fortune 100 to a startup. There are decisions to be made, not all are obvious, and so there is healthy advocacy. This is exactly where the CEO needs all his leadership skills.

The nuance in advocacy is the difference between standing up for what you believe — and trying to change the other person’s point of view. The cornerstone for all of this is a deep grasp of the principles of negotiation and framing. You can dig in your heels and wear a T-shirt with a slogan, but if you want to move someone’s needle, then you need to find an argument that will resonate. If Joe doesn’t like green beans, no amount of chest beating will get him there, but if the argument is framed as vegetables (generic) are good for your health, then maybe you both can find a place to stand.

Carol Dweck, another Stanford researcher, has focused on why people succeed, and she identifies two distinct personality types — people who believe “their intelligence and talents and personalities are fixed and unchanging and people who believe those qualities can be developed.” This is an important distinction and it is the CEO’s job to discern the difference. This is the crux of leadership — can you “foster success?” Can you identify when the clay is still soft, or in the alternative, has the kiln created the True Believer, who is fixed and intractable and you may never get him there?

Surprisingly, Dweck found that people who are the “least certain about something are more likely to advocate more strongly for it than people who are only moderately certain.” You would think this makes no sense, but the fact is that the less certain individual is the more probing and while advocating with one breath is also analyzing and double-checking with the next breath. It is like a public internal debate. It is why people read Yelp and Consumer Reports. Most of us are looking for support at the same time we are firmly situated on an outcome. (Sort of, might change my mind).

I often find myself quite willing to be uncertain (or appear to be uncertain), but am willing to take a strong stand initially — as if testing the team — and then also be willing to change my mind and be convinced of the better path — even though 20 minutes ago I was all in on position one. Some of this is posturing — it can be effective in engaging the other members of the team to weigh in, take a stand and develop a compelling thesis. But if no one is pushing back, then you have even bigger problems on your team.

Tomala points out that in general people do not like to be in an uncertain state. (Remember that Rule No. 12 in my book states, “entrepreneurs need to not only tolerate ambiguity, they need to embrace it.”) So Tomala points out that advocating strongly becomes a way to gather information. We seek certainty and confirmation and find it only by pushing hard against the discomfort.

But again, there is a nuance. Certainty can be perceived as “judgmental, even moralizing,” but if you appear to be uncertain, you run the risk of the double whammy; either you are malleable and open to persuasion, or you are a weak leader with no backbone.

Rule No. 499:  “Nothing is certain except death and taxes.”– Ben Franklin

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