The humble leader

EJP This article was originally published by JUF News

In the prior posting I referenced a recent visit to Spertus by the famed prognosticator, Nate Silver. Though it has now been several months since his appearance, I confess that I continue to think about what he said that day. One thing that stands out is his assertion that statisticians could increase the accuracy of their predictions if they were more humble. This called to mind a similar contention by a number of prominent leadership experts that humility enhances one’s ability to be a better leader and to make wiser decisions. 

In many ways these seem counter-intuitive claims. While we all have doubts, what we want from our statisticians and our leaders is certainty. We want them to instill confidence; we need them to know what they are talking about. Anything that suggests tentativeness or hesitancy is off-putting and antithetical to the certitude we so desperately require. As Bertrand Russell once observed, “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” 

In much of Western culture and tradition, humility is associated with weakness; it is, if you will, perceived to be the embodiment of unleadership. And yet, it is precisely the willingness to acknowledge how little is known for certain that actually enhances one’s ability to make better decisions, whether in the C-Suite or the newsroom, the office or the community. Wise leaders understand the value of what is known as epistemological modesty, the willingness to say, “I am not sure” and “I do not know;” to acknowledge that even when we think we are right, we might be wrong.

In Jewish tradition humility has always been the signature of effective leadership. Moses was known simultaneously as the most humble of all men, and the most successful of all leaders. These are neither unrelated nor coincidental. All subsequent Jewish leaders are urged to emulate his example. Even the king, according to the medieval authority Maimonides, who powers were extensive, had to conduct himself in a fashion that was “marked by a spirit of great humility.” 

What is it about humility that makes for better decision-making and wiser predictions?  The famed teacher of leadership Peter Drucker reminded his students that the best decisions are made when we “bring our ignorance” to a problem, because most of what we think we know is wrong. Humility allows a leader to listen carefully to others, eliciting the views of people whose input might otherwise be ignored by one so confident as to believe he has all the answers. Arrogant leaders see no reason to ask difficult questions designed to uncover the truth, because they are sure they already know everything.

In their book Execution, business writers Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan offer their own paean to humility:

“The more you can contain your ego, the more realistic you are about your problems. You learn how to listen and admit that you don’t know all the answers. You exhibit the attitude that you can learn from anyone at any time. Your pride doesn’t get in the way of gathering the information you need to achieve the best results. It doesn’t keep you from sharing the credit that needs to be shared. Humility allows you to acknowledge your mistakes … It’s not a question of thinking less of yourself, it’s a question of thinking of yourself less.”

Thoughtful leaders are challenged to balance their own impassioned convictions and the confidence in their own judgments with an appreciation for genuine humility. That humility forces us to temper what we “know” with an acknowledgment that we may just be wrong. It reminds us that certainty left unchecked becomes arrogance. It closes us off to others and makes for poor decisions and bad leadership.

—This piece originally posted in JUF News

Hal M. Lewis