“I have no special talent... I am only passionately curious,” said Albert Einstein, pictured here with physicist Robert Oppenheimer.
We live in an era of self-celebration, where fame is equated with success and being self-referential has become the norm. As a result, people are encouraged to pump themselves full of alarming self-confidence. Bluster and the alpha instinct, contends Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, professor of business psychology, often get mistaken for ability and effectiveness - at least for a while. This may well be why so many incompetent men rise ahead of women to leadership positions, as Chamorro-Premuzic argued in a recent online post for Harvard Business Review.
Yes, there are scores of books, articles and studies that warn of the perils of hubris. The word has Greek roots and means extreme pride and arrogance, generally indicating a loss of connection to reality brought about when those in power vastly overestimate their capabilities. And yes, there is evidence that its opposite, humility, inspires loyalty, helping to build and sustain cohesive, productive teamwork and decreasing staff turnover. Jim Collins had a lot to say about CEOs he saw demonstrating modesty and leading quietly, not charismatically, in his 2001 bestseller Good to Great.
Yet the attribute of humility seems to be neglected in leadership development programs. To the extent it is considered by managers rising through the ranks, it is often misunderstood. How can we change this?
First we need to establish a few things. Humility is not hospitality, courtesy, or a kind and friendly demeanour. Humility has nothing to do with being meek, weak or indecisive. Perhaps more surprising, it does not entail shunning publicity. Organisations need people who understand marketing, including self-marketing, to flourish and prosper.
Hubris, meanwhile, is not a fair label to apply to any person who thinks differently and has the courage to assert or act on her convictions. Studies show, however, that serious problems emerge when robust individualism commingles with narcissism - another term for which we can thank the Greeks, whose demigod Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection. Narcissism combines an exaggerated sense of one’s own abilities and achievements with a constant need for attention, affirmation and praise.
While the label tends to be applied loosely to anyone behaving in a self-absorbed way, psychologists know narcissism to be a formal personality disorder for some, and a real impediment to their forming healthy relationships. The narcissist lacks self-awareness and empathy and is often hypersensitive to criticism or perceived insults. This type of person frequently exaggerates contributions and claims to be “expert” at many different things. If you are part of an organization with a leader exhibiting such characteristics, you have a problem.
But beyond refusing to hire or promote such extreme cases, can and should organizations try to cultivate the quality of humility in their leadership ranks? How would that goal take shape in the context of a formal leadership development program? As a starting point, we suggest a curriculum designed around six basic principles. If you’re a developing leader, you should be taught to:
1. Know what you don’t know
Resist “master of the universe” impulses. You may excel in an area, but as a leader you are, by definition, a generalist. Rely on those who have relevant qualification and expertise. Know when to defer and delegate.
2. Resist falling for your own publicity
Whether we’re writing a press release or a self-appraisal, we all put the best spin on our successes - and then conveniently forget that the reality wasn’t as flawless. Drinking in the glory of a triumph can be energising. Too big a drink is intoxicating. It blurs vision and impairs judgment.
3. Never underestimate the competition
You may be brilliant, ambitious and audacious. But the world is filled with other hardworking, high-IQ and creative professionals. Don’t kid yourself and assume that they and their innovations aren’t a serious threat.
4. Embrace and promote a spirit of service
Employees quickly figure out which leaders are dedicated to helping them succeed and which are scrambling for personal success at their expense. Customers do too.
5. Listen, even (no, especially) to the weird ideas
People usually only listen to what someone else is saying when they are not confident that their own ideas are or will be better than someone else’s. But there is ample evidence that you should pay attention: the most imaginative and valuable ideas tend to come from left field, from some associate who seems a little offbeat and may not hold an exalted position in the organization.
6. Be passionately curious
Constantly welcome and seek out new knowledge, and insist on curiosity from those around you. Research has found links between curiosity and many positive leadership attributes, including emotional and social intelligence. Take it from Einstein. “I have no special talent,” he claimed. “I am only passionately curious.”
We can’t imagine that an individual exposed to the six principles above and encouraged to take them to heart could become anything but a better leader. However, if your organization isn’t already helping its leaders develop such habits of mind, let us leave you with two humble, and humbling, suggestions. First, subject yourself to a 360-degree review. Anonymous feedback from the people who surround you may constitute a mirror that you won’t love gazing into, but as Ann Landers once wrote: “Don’t accept your dog’s admiration as conclusive evidence that you are wonderful.” Well-rounded, 360-degree feedback pays off in two ways. It shows you how your self-perception deviates from others’ views of your leadership - and in leadership, perception is reality. It also gives you a valuable opportunity to practice receiving feedback and turning criticism into a plan for growth and development.
Second, get a coach. We all have blind spots, and there’s certainly no shame in getting help for them. Fast Company reports that 43 per cent of CEOs and 71 per cent of senior executives say they’ve worked with a coach. And 92 percent of leaders being coached say they plan to use a coach again.
Resolve to work on your own humility and you will begin to notice and appreciate its power. In a recent meeting we convened in Los Angeles, the accomplished chairman and CEO of a major Hollywood studio shared the benefit of his experience with 20 young professionals and students. What did this leader emphasize to the group? He spoke of his own failures, weaknesses and blind spots and how they had spurred his learning and success. The fact that he spoke about himself in this way deeply impressed the group. He projected convincing self-confidence, authenticity and wisdom.
He was a convincing example of the kind of leader our organizations should be trying harder to develop: the kind who knows it’s better to grow a taste for humility now than be forced to eat humble pie later.
John Dame is CEO of Dame Management Strategies. Jeffrey Gedmin is CEO of the Legatum Institute.
© 2013 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp.