100% All-Natural Composition
No Artificial Intelligence!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Needed: Humble leaders, not confident ones

Michael Hyatt has written an intriguing essay on leadership over at his blog. As Hyatt puts it, we are wrong to seek leaders who are confident in their own abilities and knowledge, when instead we should find leaders who can and will admit that they don't have complete understanding and are far more humble because of it. Hyatt cites the example of Joseph Hooker during the American Civil War...
"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.

I have been thinking much the same for quite some time now. It seems that every aspect of our culture, from government to business to even the realm of religious worship, is plagued with people demanding that we give them extra heed because "we know better". And far more often than not, we take them at their word.

All we get are "leaders" too proud to admit that they've made mistakes... and we keep giving them more power because we're too proud to admit that we were wrong to install them in leadership positions in the first place.