There’s a great battle being waged at this very moment. It’s a conflict that has existed since the earliest documentation of socialized mankind. But it’s not the kind of war fought with weapons and armies. Rather, it’s an internal conflict that each of us must constantly face as we go about our daily business. And the great foes of this conflict? Humility versus egocentricity.
Such is especially true of organizational leaders, and the question of leadership qualities has therefore long included a debate about whether humility and egocentricity are assets or liabilities for successful leaders. Does humility render one weak and indecisive, or does it inspire and motivate others to perform? And similarly, does egocentricity alienate and deflate others, or does it exude a strength and purposefulness that inspires confidence?
Professor Sharon Turnbull, Director of The Centre for Applied Leadership Research within The Leadership Trust in the U.K., favored humility over egocentricity when she argued as follows:
When MBA students are asked who they believe to be good leaders, their (top 10) answers inevitably include Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa (along with great business leaders). What these leaders have in common that makes them great is humility.
So why do great leaders need humility?
1) Humility enables a leader to recognize and unlock the value and potential of those around them, and make use of their talents. To listen to others is one of the most important elements of leadership. Egocentric leaders don’t do this.
2) Humility does not mean weak. It requires strength and self awareness to develop humility. Leaders who have learned humility are seen by their followers as strong, purposeful and reflective.
3) Humility enables a leader to direct his or her attention on a purpose outside of themselves.
4) Humility enables leadership to become a shared process and acknowledges that decision making is rarely effective when it remains in the hands of a single individual, especially one who believes himself to be right all the time.
5) Leaders with humility are more likely to follow an ethical path than those driven primarily for the need for personal success. They value the importance of society, and the world, and are guided by a desire for the good of many rather than the good of themselves.
(For the full context of Professor Turnbull’s comments visit www.mbaworld.com/blr-archive/issues-72/5/index.pdf)
None of us is as smart as all of us.
While Turnbull’s opinion is shared by many, not all agree with her views on the power of humility. And for that reason, it’s always helpful to turn to the data. One example of scientific data supporting the virtue of humility among leaders can be found in last November’s edition of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Process. Researchers from NYU published an article based upon their examination of how an individual’s power and authority – and related lack of humility – impacts the decision-making process for leaders. (See “The detrimental effects of power on confidence, advice and accuracy.” web-docs.stern.nyu.edu/pa/ksee_power_advice_taking.pdf )
Using four different research methods, the investigators showed that as leaders garnered more power, they were more likely to have greater self confidence, which itself was no surprise. However, they also discovered that higher confidence levels directly correlated with a greater propensity to ignore the advice of others, even when that advice was recognized by the leader to be valuable in offering corrections to a flawed decision. The investigators concluded: “Power can thus exacerbate the tendency for people to overweight their own initial judgment, such that the most powerful decision makers can also be the least accurate.” It turns out that our own egos can sometimes be our own worst enemies.
So how do we avoid getting too big for our britches, as our moms used to say? In this fast moving, materialistic world where we celebrate wealth and accomplishment, humility is clearly at a disadvantage in the battle against egocentricity. So what can we do?
Ironically, in order to recognize the dangers of our own egocentricity, we have to start with a somewhat egocentric act – self reflection. That’s because we can’t see the impact our own egocentricity has on others if we haven’t developed self awareness, and then converted it into self control. That’s a lot of “selfish” talk, but as it turns out, the path to connecting with and motivating others starts with the self. And leadership experts tell us this: the best leaders have diets that include a healthy dose of daily humble pie.