Friday, October 17, 2014

Humility Is Back

It’s not about reinventing the wheel, but it certainly represents a return to classical ethics.

The Western therapy culture has undermined classical ethics. Beginning with Freud it has militated against decorum, propriety, modesty and thrift.

It has also promoted the values of unearned self-esteem, self-assertiveness and leaning in.

Then, ironically, naïve therapists puzzled over why so many of their patients were narcissistic. Or better, why we were living in a culture of narcissism.

Since the therapy culture is all posturing and no substance, it should not be surprising that it sees leadership and management in terms of self-assertion, that is, in terms of barking orders, being overly confident  and looking like one is in charge. Unbeknownst to itself it has adopted the cinematic and dramatic view of leadership, thereby misleading its patients about the qualities needed to succeed in the world.

The opposite of assertiveness and macho posturing is, obviously, humility. It is one of the greatest of the classical virtues, a sign of sterling character.

Today’s therapists might have some inklings about the importance of humility, a virtue to be acquired by practice, but the impetus for its return comes to us from the world of business. Great leaders, the business world knows, are invariably humble.

As reported on Yahoo!:

Scientific inquiry into the power and effectiveness of humility in the workplace has shown that it offers a significant “competitive advantage” to leaders.
According to a study from the University of Washington Foster School of Business, humble people tend to make the most effective leaders (that’s right, the most) and are more likely to be high performers in both individual and team settings, according to associate professor Michael Johnson.

Leadership and managing has nothing to do with posturing. It doesn’t mean that you look like a leader. You can see it in the way your staff or your team functions.

This much is clear from the University of Washington study:

Unsurprisingly, researchers found that employees who rated their managers as humble reported feeling more engaged and less likely to quit. They also reported being more committed to a leader’s vision, and more trusting and receptive to their ideas.

“Our study suggests that a ‘quieter’ leadership approach -- listening, being transparent, aware of your limitations and appreciating co-workers strengths and contributions, is an effective way to engage employees,” Johnson and fellow researchers Bradley Owens and Terence Mitchell write in the study.
It ought to be fairly obvious, but a leader who listens to others, who takes their input seriously, who does not believe that he knows everything will make better decisions and will set policy that others will understand and be happy to implement.

As the authors write:

A pseudo leader always leaves you with a feeling of their greatness, while an authentic leader always leaves you with a feeling of your greatness.

Those who have been warring against humility have slandered it. They have said that it designates weakness:
But humility, as it turns out, has nothing to do with weakness precisely because it requires a substantial inner strength to embody -- one that not only welcomes feedback and criticism but knows that it is one of the fundamental ways that we grow. In this way, the ability to ruthlessly self-reflect and accurately see our limitations, as much as our strengths, is essential to reaping the benefits of humility.

Of course, the opposite is the case. Leaders who are arrogant and narcissistic, who are overly confident and who lean in too much tend to fail.

For example:

It’s no secret that executives are often hired based on skills and experience, but fired based on personality. Arrogance, narcissism, and Machiavellianism are factors that we now know regularly precipitates executive failure.

Former CEO of Enron Jeff Skilling, junk bond king and white collar criminal Michael Milken, and one-time leader at American International Group (AIG) Joe Cassano were all executives lionized by business publications as if their overconfidence was a clear indicator of paranormal abilities, super intelligence, infallible strategic vision and magical oratory skills. Yet, all of these leaders were credited as the cause for the collapse of their organizations.

More recently we’ve seen former Abercrombie CEO Mike Jeffries and Thorstein Hein of Blackberry exemplifying how leaders should not behave at the top. Yet while their behavior may seem obvious to some, it remains largely ignored by most boardrooms, who often look the other way because of the preconception that overconfidence equates to wisdom, when it can often be just a mask to hide self-doubt.

The authors offer some useful ways to learn how to recognize humility in others. Obviously, we should all try to cultivate these habits.

Among them:

Humble leaders do not boast and do not take credit for success. They take sole responsibility for any failure and share the credit for success with others.

Humble leaders do not get defensive when their ideas are being challenged. They do not see a counter-argument as a criticism or a rejection, but as a contribution.

Humble leaders respect their competition and their opponents. They do not dismiss, demean and denigrate the opposition, but see it as worthy.

Humble leaders respect those they report to and show grace toward those who report to them.

1 comment: said...

Hey Stuart,
I think Pope Francis read your article. Humility, so refreshing. Thank you for your keen observations and know that this fan devours and desires the wisdom you gained as analyst too! Even Pope Benedict wanted to hear what Julia Krestiva had to say.