The Power of Authentic Confidence
During the latter part of the war, British intelligence struggled with the growing threat of German rockets. As new and sometimes contradictory information emerged, R. V. Jones and his colleagues struggled to assemble a coherent picture of German capabilities. Jones, a master of rethinking assumptions, considered a possibility that the experts had overlooked, which in turn led him to the alarming conclusion that the Germans had already assembled up to a thousand of the new rockets.
Shortly after uncovering this possibility, Jones found himself across from Churchill in a 10 p.m. Crossbow Committee meeting. As Jones relates the situation, Churchill was none too happy with the Air Staff and its apparent failure to discern the surprising progress of the German efforts sooner. What follows in Jones’ account reveals much about Jones, Churchill, and the authentic confidence those who aspire to the title of “seasoned red teamer” should possess.
Jones notes “Winston’s attack grew sharper as the night progressed, but I began to enjoy it.” Jones was in the hot seat, and his colleagues were largely silent. “The crisis came,” says Jones, “when I told Churchill that from the evidence I had just evaluated I thought that the Germans must have at least a thousand rockets. At this he exploded, and started to thump the table, saying that we had been caught napping.” (This and following quotes can be found in Jones 1978, 436–440)
Jones countered that “If we had been caught napping, this was due to his own [Churchill’s] directive issued before D-Day that in any conflict between requirements for defence and offence priority should be given to the offence, and in my field this meant concentrating on knocking out the German radar.” The discussion continued on several points, and Churchill’s wrath eventually “subsided.” Within a day or two, word circulated that Jones had “shut Winston up.” Jones, somewhat circumspectly observes “If so, I hope that I did it respectfully, because never in my life have I enjoyed a fight so much. Each of us had too much respect for the truth to resort to any subterfuge or sophistry, and we both knew that the truth was what we wanted to get at.”*
Not many of us will have the opportunity to face a man or woman of the stature of Churchill in a council of war (nor do many of possess the sagacity and wisdom of Jones), but the exchange is equally instructive for lesser mortals. Know your evidence. Question it. Turn it inside out and test it again. When you’re confident, stand by it and be willing to defend it, respectfully and tactfully. Jones did this, and, interestingly enough, so did Churchill (for the most part). Both were open to contrary evidence and ideas but refused to relax their standard of truth. (Compare Churchill’s willingness to debate with the demeanor of both Hitler and Stalin.)
Two other points emerge during the debate and its aftermath. First, Churchill asked Jones why he had not disseminated the key evidence sooner that day, to which Jones replied “I found it last night, and I have had seven committee meetings to attend since then, Sir.” Soon after, Churchill granted Jones permission to skip any meetings he felt distracted him from his primary mission. “It was a valuable concession, since almost none of the committees was genuinely useful, and most of them owed their origin to a general panic resulting from much theorizing on too few facts. My job was to get the facts.” How many of us wish we had Jones’ dispensation?
Second, Jones (not for the first time) skewers the “experts” for leading the analysts down false paths; in this case, the experts promulgated poor assumptions about the rockets’ launching system. In his debate with Churchill, Jones noted that “the experts had advised us to look for the wrong things, and had we not been so misled regarding the nature of the launching apparatus, which had again only become clear by our own efforts in the last 24 hours, we might have got at the truth earlier.”
One of the things we find most interesting about Jones is how he balances confidence and questioning, all the while avoiding the excesses of arrogance. As we note, in Red Teaming Law #19, “Arrogance is both the nemesis and the target of good red teaming.” If you read his book, you will find that Jones at times edges toward apparent arrogance. He does not hesitate, for example, to communicate the war-winning role he played in countering German radar, nor does he manage to mask his contempt of experts or his pride in receiving Churchill’s approval to forgo committee meetings. But is this arrogance? After all, Jones was frequently right, and he was constantly willing to question his own assumptions.
Perhaps we need to separate arrogance and authentic confidence. If arrogance results from “knowing” you’re right at the expense of the truth, then authentic confidence results from knowing when you’re right while seeking relentlessly for the truth. (This, of course, begs the eternal question of “what is truth?” but I think we can intuitively discern truth from the willingness to seek it.) Arrogance weakens you; authentic confidence strengthens you. Arrogance feeds poor decisions; authentic confidence cultivates superior ones.
Authentic confidence is what inspired the young Jones to sit across from an infuriated, table-pounding Churchill and debate him, toe-to-toe. It was also what led Churchill to respect Jones and bend to Jones’ evidence and arguments. For us, Jones is the example to which red teamers should aspire, and Churchill is the example to which leaders and decision makers should aspire; both were authentically confident, and, in Jones’ words, “we both knew that the truth was what we wanted to get at.”
* Lest we doubt Jones’ first-hand account, we also have this note from Sir Oswald Allen to Jones: “Do I not remember you at the Rocket meetings? Far the youngest present, calm, cool, collected, the only one, or almost the only one prepared to take on the great man in his testiest of midnight mood and argue patiently and respectfully with him!”
Jones, R. V. Most Secret War. 1978. London: Penguin Books.