The Necessity of Humility in Leadership

Today was another busy but amazing day at The Catalyst Conference in Atlanta. The speakers, the music, and the entire experience were incredibly inspiring. If you didn’t go this year, you absolutely must next year. I brought ten people from Thomas Nelson; next year, I will bring more. It is a great opportunity to renew your vision and connect with other leaders.

Painting of the Battle of Chancellorsville

Today we heard from Andy Stanley, Malcolm Gladwell, Tony Dungy, Jessica Jackley, Shane Hipps, Rob Bell, Matt Chandler, and Francis Chan. What a line-up! Once again, I took about ten pages of notes. I’d love to share them all with you, but I want to focus on Malcolm Gladwell’s talk: “The Mistakes Experts Make.”

He began with an analysis of what the recent—and current—financial crisis tells us about leadership. Obviously, the people on Wall Street who got us into this mess were smart people. So how is it that such smart people could make such catastrophically bad decisions?

Gladwell took a page from history and shared with us about the battle of Chancellorsville, which took place during the Civil War in 1863. “Fighting Joe Hooker” was a major general in the Union army. He was exceedingly smart. He set up an elaborate spy network and knew more about the Confederate army than the Confederates did themselves.

Hooker found himself squared off against General Robert E. Lee in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, near the village of Chancellorsville. Because of the detailed intelligence he was able to gather, he positioned his troops in such a way that he had Lee surrounded on three sides. In addition, his troops outnumbered Lee’s two-to-one.

Hooker was absolutely confident that he would destroy Lee’s army. Lee’s only choice was to retreat to Richmond. The night before the battle, Hooker told his troops, “God Almighty could not prevent us from victory tomorrow.” He was bold, audacious, and (as it turned out) overly confident.

According to Gladwell, more information does not guarantee better decisions. In fact, we tend to overestimate the value of additional information. He cited the work of Dr. Stuart Hopkins, who did extensive research on this topic. What he discovered is that when people are given more information, they grow more confident in their ability to solve the problem. However, their actual results are not better. Sometimes, they are worse.

Overconfidence is “the disease of experts.” They think think they know more than they actually do know. In fact, they make mistakes precisely because they have knowledge. This is what happened on Wall Street. This is what also happened with Hooker.

When Lee realized he was surrounded on three sides, he began moving his troops south. Hooker assumed Lee was retreating to Richmond. His men relaxed. Some of them started celebrating. What they didn’t realize was that Lee was flanking their position.

Hooker was arrogant and over-confident. He didn’t prepare for this possibility. Even though Lee was surrounded on three sides and outnumbered two-to-one, he was able to defeat Hooker. It was a stunning and demoralizing defeat for the Union army.

The lesson is this: In times of crisis, we think we need leaders who are bold and confident. This is completely wrong-headed. What we really need are leaders who are humble and willing to listen.

As leaders ourselves, how can we avoid becoming overly confident? Three ways:

  1. Listen to those around us. We cannot afford to create a culture that is not safe for dissent. Our people need to feel the freedom to disagree with us and tell us the truth.
  2. Plan for contingencies. We might be right. We might be wrong. We need to accept this and create a plan A and a plan B. We can’t afford to assume that our plans are infallible.
  3. Enlist the help of our team. When organizations are small, they can be run by a single, entrepreneurial leader. But when the organization gets bigger than about 150 people (according to Gladwell) our leadership has to change. It must become a more collective, collaborative effort.

The good news is that, as leaders, we can learn. We can grow. But above all, we must remain humble. If we don’t, we risk large-scale, public failures that will have a catastrophic, negative impact on the people we are trying to lead.

Question: What specific actions are you taking to remain humble as a leader?
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  • http://Www.showhomes.com Thomas Scott

    Great post! I find that more information often makes people pause and keeps them from making quick decisions. Momentum is critical in business and you can’t get moving if you don’t make decsisions. In a tough environment this is more so than ever.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Yes, one big learning for me is that waiting for more information won’t affect the quality of the decision. It will increase your confidence, but this is not necessarily a good thing, as Gladwell points out.

  • http://Spiritualflow.weebly.com Jared B

    As a leader of a "small" organization (although I believe the impact is not small", I definitely push to listen to those around me. I have also recently been stepping up my number 3 for the first time, because I realize the importance of it, even when leading a group smaller than 150!

    Thanks for the great post and info from Catalyst, Michael!

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I agree. Just because you can lead a smaller group by yourself doesn't mean you should. It's best if you can employ a team approach from the get-go. Thanks.

  • http://twitter.com/BLichtenwalner @BLichtenwalner

    As Max DePree wrote, "The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant." Focusing on our roles as stewards and not our personal success, fame or fortune helps us remain grounded and humble.

    Another great post. Thanks for sharing.
    – Ben Lichtenwalner

    ServeForLeading.com

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Great reminder from Max. It is also a reminder to me to go back and read his book!

      • http://twitter.com/BLichtenwalner @BLichtenwalner

        Thanks Michael. Max is an inspiration and an extraordinary man who continues to serve his community.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/KNicholls KNicholls

    What great information. Sad that many businesses believe when they get bigger it's the time to be less collaborative because "we don't need so many people involved in decisions." While someone does ultimately have to be responsible for the decisions, it doesn't pay to make them in a vacuum.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I totally agree. A dictatorship is very efficient. It's just not usually very effective!

  • gwagner

    excellent post. Catalyst is one of the best conferences to attend!

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      And it just keeps getting better every year!

  • Teri D. Smith

    I'm thinking there's a lot our political leaders could learn from this too.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Absolutely. The politicians like to blame Wall Street, but they were just as culpable.

  • Dion_Govender

    Fantastic Post Micheal, I especially like point one. It’s amazing the effect you can have on your people just by giving them the opportunity to be heard. Listening to your team also shows that you’re secure in your calling or positon as a leader.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I think this is the first step in getting your team aligned: make sure everyone feels heard. Then, as a leader, you can make the decision you need to make and people will follow. They know that the decision will not always be the one they would make. But if they feel heard, they will stay on-board.

  • http://bensternke.com Ben Sternke

    Saw this today – illustrates Gladwell's point pretty well:

    http://thisisindexed.com/2009/10/needles-and-hays

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/KarlaAkins KarlaAkins

    Our leaders in Washington need to read this post.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/MichaelSGray MichaelSGray

    Though this post is directed at leaders, it also made me think of how we are educating our future leaders.

    The self-esteem movement in public schools teaches students that belief in yourself, no matter the outcome, is the most important thing in life. As a result, I have students whose confidence levels far outshine their ability. The problem with this is that they are oftentimes so confident that 2+2=5 that it can be difficult to convince them that they may actually be wrong.

    The balance of confidence and performance is very delicate.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I agree. I think we have over-dialed this. I see this in Generation Y employees who often, though not always, have an immense sense of entitlement.

  • http://twitter.com/MichaelGHolmes @MichaelGHolmes

    Great post Michael!

    It ironic I'm (finally) reading Good to Great by Jim Collins. And he talks about that exact same thing: being humble enough to create a culture of honesty.

    Thanks for confirming the fact that: he who is greatest among you shall be your servant

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Yes, humility, as you may remember from the book, is a characteristic of Level 4 leadership.

  • http://twitter.com/jmayerik @jmayerik

    The enemy of overconfidence is dependence. To be humble as a leader, I try and recognize my dependence on God and I try and get as much advice as possible.

    "But if you see that the job is too big for you, that it's something only God can do, and you trust him to do it … that is what gets you set right with God." Rom. 4:5 The Message

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  • http://intensedebate.com/people/patriciazell patriciazell

    I would add to your first point–be gracious as you listen. I practice this a lot as I am teaching. Many students are afraid to think deeply and then share their thoughts because they are afraid of negative feedback. (And, this probably happens frequently in the business world.) By listening and responding with kindness and respect, I give my students the confidence to share what they think. I've even been known to act on their suggestions. This gives them ownership in their own education.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I agree, Patricia. And just to build on your excellent point, I think it's important as a leader to ask a second or third question before responding. This take enormous self-discipline, and I often fail myself. But you often get at the truth by "peeling away at the onion" in this way. It also gives you some fascinating insights that you wouldn't get any other way.

  • http://www.andyblanks.com Andy

    Thanks for summarizing this, Michael. Gladwell is one of my favs, precisely for this type of analysis.

    One of the things leaders must remember is that the kind of information we can gather from those we lead is informed by a different (and extremely valuable) perspective, namely, form those on the "front lines." Pride (as opposed to humility) can often prevent leaders from seeing those they lead as a valuable source of info and perspective. Humility in leadership helps to create an atmosphere that enables useful information and perspective gathering from those who oftentimes know the product/mission best.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I agree, Andy. As leaders, once we can lay aside the pretense of having to have all the answers, we can take our leadership—and our teams—to an entirely new level. Thanks for your comments.

  • http://meredith-morgan.blogspot.com/ Meredith Morgan

    This is a significant and timely discussion. I wish it were taking place in the halls of our government and board rooms of our corporations.

    In particular I agree with Michael Gray's comment relating this to the "self esteem" movement. Feeling good about ourselves and relying what we believe to be our abilities, and thinking we are smart and well-armed with information are impediments to the humility we need to ask others for input in decision-making.

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  • Dennis P

    From what I've read, one of the keys to a successful executive is being able to make good decisions with limited information, being able to ask the right questions (which reflects an understanding of what the key issues are and what should be addressed), and being able not to know the answers, but to know who to ask. Definitely this is humility- to know that you cannot do it on your own, no matter how competent you might be. Sort of the upside down version of how the world sees it.

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  • http://www.theadvocategroup.net Kevin Thompson

    This post reminds me of Gladwell's book "Blink." It was a great book. This post reminds me that our government too confident in its abilities to solve all of our problems. WIth its narrow focus, its failing to see the bigger picture. Humility is a scarce resource these days. What do I do to remain humble? I run my practice and compete in the marketplace daily. I force myself to learn from mistakes, adapt, make adjustments and advance. Leaders need to remain "in the game" to maintain their humility. Brett Favre set the record record for most TDs thrown in a career. He also owns the record for most interceptions. And he's a humble guy.
    My recent post MonaVie vs. XOWii, et al

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  • http://happyhourmary.com Mary

    The older I get, the more I value humility. (not to mention, the more I am forced to have!!!)

    • http://www.michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Amen to that!

  • http://www.bestdestiny.org Todd

    I’ve been thinking about humility a lot lately in my personal life and challenging my own thoughts. Are there any books or audiobooks that really hit home on the subject?

    • http://www.michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      I am not aware of any. Sorry.

    • Michele Turner

      You may want to check out Humility by Andrew Murray

      • http://www.serenityhunter.com Todd Hash

        Thanks Michele!