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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