Some leaders are boardroom lions. They are super confident, forceful and charismatic. They call for relentless transformational change.
We can all point to successful leaders who display this kind of self-confidence. It’s the sort of self-assurance that nearly every politician tries to present. Yet much research suggests that extremely self-confident leaders can also be risky. Charismatic CEOs often produce volatile company performances. These leaders swing for the home run and sometimes end up striking out. They make more daring acquisitions, shift into new fields and abruptly change strategies.
Jim Collins, author of Good to Great and How the Mighty Fall, celebrates a different sort of leader. He’s found that many of the reliably successful leaders combine “extreme personal humility with intense professional will”.
The humble hound
Alongside the boardroom lion model of leadership, you can imagine a humble hound model.
Trade tips: Analytical skills differ modestly from person to person, but perceptual skills vary enormously.
• The humble-hound leader thinks less about her mental strengths than about her weaknesses. She knows her performance slips when she has to handle more than one problem at a time, so she turns off her phone and email while making decisions. She knows she is bad at prediction, so she follows author and management consultant Peter Drucker’s old advice: After each decision, she writes a memo about what she expects to happen. Nine months later, she’ll read it to discover how far off she was.
In short, she spends a lot of time on metacognition—thinking about her thinking—and then building external scaffolding devices to compensate for her weaknesses.
• She believes we only progress through a series of regulated errors. Every move is a partial failure, to be corrected by the next one. Even walking involves shifting your weight off-balance and then compensating with the next step.
• She knows the world is too complex and irregular to be known, so life is about navigating uncertainty. She understands she is too quick to grasp at confident projections that give the illusion of control. She has to remember author George Eliot’s image—that life is like playing chess with chessmen who each have thoughts and feelings and motives of their own.
• She spends more time seeing than analysing. Analytical skills differ modestly from person to person, but perceptual skills vary enormously. Anybody can analyse, but the valuable people can pick out the impermanent but crucial elements of a moment or effectively grasp a context. This sort of perception takes modesty; strong personalities distort the information field around them. This sort of understanding also takes patience. As the Japanese say, don’t just study a topic. Get used to it. Live in it for a while.
• Because of her limitations, she tries to construct thinking teams. In one study, groups and individuals were given a complicated card game called the Wason selection task—75% of the groups solved it, but only 14% of the individuals did.
• She tries not to fall for the seductions that Collins says mark failing organizations: the belief that one magic move will change everything; the faith in perpetual restructuring; the tendency to replace questions with statements at meetings.
Superior stagehand, not director
In the journal In Character, The Washington Post theatre critic Peter J. Marks has an essay on the ethos of the stagehands who work behind the scenes. Being out when the applause is ringing doesn’t feel important to them. The important things are the communal work, the contribution to the whole production and the esprit de corps. The humble hound is a stagehand who happens to give more public presentations than most.
©2010/THE NEW YORK TIMES
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