If humility is so important, why are leaders so arrogant?
3 weeks ago, 11:40
A column in The Wall Street Journal recently proclaimed: .” The article reported that humble leaders “inspire close teamwork, rapid learning and high performance in their teams.”
This celebration of humility, however, flies in the face of reality. Just think of the Tesla CEO Elon Musk: He may be the most visible, influential, high-impact leader in Silicon Valley, yet it’s hard to imagine anyone with less “modesty” or “unpretentiousness.”
If humility is so important, why are so many leaders today so arrogant?
For one thing, too many leaders think they can’t be humble and ambitious at the same time. Edgar Schein, professor emeritus at MIT Sloan School of Management, once asked a group of his students what it means to be promoted to the rank of manager.
“They said without hesitation, ‘It means I can now tell others what to do.'” Those are the roots of the know-it-all style of leadership.
The “tacit assumption” among executives “is that life is fundamentally and always a competition” — between companies, but also between individuals within companies, Schein adds.
In reality, of course, humility and ambition need not be at odds. Indeed, humility in the service of ambition is the most effective and sustainable mindset for leaders who aspire to do big things in a world filled with huge unknowns.
Years ago, a group of human resources professionals at IBM embraced a term to capture this mindset. The most effective leaders, they argued, exuded a sense of “humbition,” which they defined as “one part humility and one part ambition.”
Another issue with humility is that it can feel soft at a time when problems are hard; it can make leaders appear vulnerable when people are looking for answers and reassurances. Of course, that’s precisely its virtue: The most effective business leaders don’t pretend to have all the answers; the world is just too complicated for that.
Here too, Schein offers helpful insights. In a book called “Humble Inquiry,” Schein identifies three different forms of humility. The first, “the humility that we feel around elders and dignitaries,” is a basic part of social life.
The second, “the humility that we feel in the presence of those who awe us with their achievements,” is a standard part of professional life. It’s the third form of humility, which he calls “here-and-now humility,” that is the most rarely observed in business, and the most relevant for leaders who truly want to achieve big things.
Here-and-now humility is “how I feel when I am dependent on you,” Schein explains. “My status is inferior to yours at this moment because you know something or can do something that I need in order to accomplish some task or goal. I also have a choice. I can either not commit to tasks that make me dependent on others, or I can deny the dependency, avoid feeling humble, fail to get what I need, and, thereby, fail to accomplish the task or unwittingly sabotage it.”
We live in a world where ego gets attention but modesty gets results. Where ...
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