It is hard to hear the news about someone like Marilyn Tavenner stepping down and not think about the expectations we put on our leaders. In Tavenner’s case, when she became acting head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in 2011, politicians expected her to know the field of health care inside out. On top of this, they expected her to be an expert at designing complex websites, running a business, navigating bipartisan politics and marketing policy changes. Do these expectations sound excessive? Well, they were. And the result was the disastrous HealthCare.gov rollout in the fall of 2013.*
Finally, just a few months ago, Tavenner said of the website that we should expect “visible improvement, but not perfection.” That is the sort of humility we should have been hearing all along.
Humility as a desirable attribute is just beginning to be discussed among top leaders. “Don’t believe your own brilliance,” Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson told the BBC at the World Economic Forum last week in Davos. “You need to be curious and you need to be doing more listening than talking. It’s possible to glorify the position of CEO—it’s important that they should not be the only one making the decisions. Nobody is that brilliant.”
Last July, a study from Arizona State University showed CEOs with a touch of humility are much better for their company’s management and bottom line. “Humble CEOs are more open to making joint decisions and empowering others,” one of the study’s authors, Angelo Kinicki, told ASU News. “Their behavior positively affects both top and middle managers, who then exhibit higher commitment, work engagement, job satisfaction and job performance. We see a trickle-down effect that seems to influence the company overall.”
Mr. Kinicki shared three “humble” CEOs who are making waves in today’s economy: Tony Hsieh of Zappos, John Mackey of Whole Foods, and Mary Barra of General Motors. “It’s time we understood that humility isn’t a sign of weakness or lacking confidence,” he said in his interview, “but rather, a good thing that can benefit us all.”
Another set of researchers turned their sights on “intellectual humility” last spring. In a report published in the Journal of Positive Psychology in March, the researchers conducted a series of studies in an effort to gain a “folk” understanding of what intellectual humility means and what its possession does for a person. “Curiosity drives intellectually humble people to be willing to engage with others,” Peter Samuelson, one of the study’s co-authors, told the Deseret News this month. “It spills over into all kinds of social activities.”
These modern thinkers are in good company. The greatest thinkers of the past have long recognized humility as a leadership quality.
Galileo, one of the fathers of modern science, is supposed to have said, “Doubt is the father of invention.” Why did he think that doubt is generative, whereas others consider it paralyzing or destructive? Because doubt is the source of understanding and innovation. Doubt is what causes us to ask the next question, which in turn leads us to a new possibility. Doubt threatens the sense of security that keeps us tied down to what we thought we knew. Once we find a new understanding, doubt pushes us to go beyond that and never remain complacent.
Michael Faraday, another pioneering scientist, argued that to acquire the habit of good judgment, individuals must engage in a program of self-education that rejects blind dependency on the authority of others. They must examine themselves and become their own sharpest critics. “This education has for its first and last step humility,” he said in his lecture “Observations on Mental Education.” “It can commence only because of a conviction of deficiency.” In other words, learning begins from knowing that we do not know.
In this, Faraday is merely repeating Socrates, the patron saint of intellectual humility. The Socrates of Plato’s dialogues shows us again and again (perhaps most memorably in the Meno and the Apology) that it is only when we understand the depth of our own ignorance, only when we appreciate how little we know, that we are ready to develop the lifelong habits that will best support learning. When we break free from conventional thinking and begin to doubt what we have been taught about the world—then we can begin to imagine a whole new way to see the world and our place in it.
But is this attitude something that can be expected of leaders? We pile expectations on our leaders. We love to follow self-confident people who do not display their doubts in public—if they have any.
That is the danger. By demanding that leaders have ultimate self-confidence, we run the risk of choosing people to lead who do not have any doubts. And it is obvious that choosing leaders lacking in humility sets us up for disappointment. Or worse.
Fortunately, the conversation about humility as a leadership quality is finally beginning. Even those in charge of hiring young minds say they are placing humility at the top of their list as a hiring attribute. Last spring, in fact, Thomas L. Friedman ran a popular column in which Laszlo Bock, the head of Google hiring, said he looks not for GPA strength but rather for humility in a candidate. Specifically, he said, “intellectual humility. Without humility, you are unable to learn.”
Shall we try, as a society, to throw off traditional thinking about leadership? Shall we make a concerted effort to see whether humility can lead us to heights that conventional leadership qualities cannot? Shall we let ourselves wonder whether leaders and followers can reach further as co-learners than they ever could before?
And then shall we dare to ask the next question?
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay originally appeared in The Huffington Post. Republished with permission of the author. (January 2015).