Have An Opinion! Why Leaders Cannot Succumb To The Vanna White Theory (Decision Making)


If you were to ask me about the most frustrating leader I’ve ever known, it’s not the micromanager or the control freak, not that I’d describe either as “fun.” No, my most frustrating leader is the guy who will not express his opinion. I say “guy” because I’m thinking about a particular individual from my past; let’s call him Opie.

An analyst at heart, Opie was smart, foreword thinking, and easily one of the nicest people you’ll meet. He could teach a master class on a number of subjects – financial projections, accounting principles, stock valuation, the Boston Red Sox, cooking bar-b-que, just to name a few – but leadership and the ability to manage a team would not be on this list.

Opie was a notorious delegator…and not in a good way. He delegated almost every decision. At first I thought he was deferring accountability so there’d be someone to blame in the event of a judgment gone awry. Then I thought he was empowering others. But, then I watched him refuse to decide where we should order lunch. And what color the company shirts should be this year. And whether The Beatles’ best album was St. Peppers or Rubber Soul (it’s obviously Rubber Soul).

Opie, it turns out, did not have an opinion. That may not pose a problem when discussing The Beatles’ catalogue, but it mattered when we were considering acquiring another company. And hiring his Executive Assistant. And choosing a health insurance plan for our employees. And making every single decision that demands input from the leader.

Comedian Pete Holmes discussed this on his podcast, You Made it Weird—“I’ve actually been trying to write a bit. All I have written down is ‘Have an opinion [because] I’m so bored.’ That’s all that’s on the paper. I’ve just found myself yelling that and getting a response because people know what I mean. It’s the worst thing to be talking to somebody that is just like, ‘everything’s amazing’ – ‘How’s that restaurant?’ ‘It’s amazing.’ ‘How’s that cookie you’re eating?’ ‘It's amazing.’ That’s just another type of opinionlessness. People crave direction and, in a weird way, leadership. Anytime someone lights a match, we are all drawn to that light. I’m dying for people with strong opinions and some sort of decisiveness.”

Great leaders have opinions. They have a point of view, a direction to lead the team, and a stance on how best to get there. Yet, most people are reluctant to voice the need for opinionated leaders. Just look at how Pete’s guest, Sarah Silverman, responded to his statement—“With that said, traditionally, people with strong opinions are not as popular as people with ambiguousness. I remember Ted Koppel having this Vanna White Theory… There was a time when Vanna White suddenly became the most famous woman in the world. And nobody knew anything about her except she turned the letters on Wheel of Fortune. And [Koppel] said, ‘The reason why she became so famous was because no one knew anything about her, but everyone knew her.’ And when a politician can be that ambiguous then we are able to put everything we want them to be onto them.

Koppel’s not wrong. A classic research study from the 1970s found that unopinionated leaders were more likely to reach consensus than those who exhibited deliberately opinionated communication behavior. Unopinionated leaders were also rated as more competent and more objective. This leaves me to question whether the term opinionated is being confused with forceful. Are opinionated leaders getting a bad rap because they have opinions or because they present themselves as know-it-all dictators who give commands versus garner support?

We must find the balance between having an opinion and forcing our beliefs upon others. Ask questions. Listen to others’ concerns. Collect the necessary information. Then form your opinion. That’s what leaders do—we take in information to generate beliefs and take on initiatives to see those beliefs come to fruition. Don’t shirk your responsibilities by remaining ambiguous; it may have worked for Vanna White, but the shelf life of an opinionless leader is not nearly as long as that of a supermodel game show co-host.

David Kahn, PhD is an Organizational Psychologist focused on delivering business solutions that link culture and engagement with the business goals of the organization. Check out his latest book, "Case, Spandex, Briefcase: Leadership Lessons from Superheroes" and read more of his work on leadersayswhat.com.