Leadership through humility

In the book, “Humility is the New Smart,” authors Edward Hess and Katherine Ludwig examine how technology can effectively replace what was once the monopoly of the human race with robots, machine learning, artificial intelligence, neural networks (and the list goes on). Our authors suggest technology will replace 47 percent of American jobs (there is nothing very substantive to back this up).  But the percentage doesn’t matter exactly; it’s more the point that it will be significant, and what’s critical (and the reason for the book) is how we adapt to this to be successful.

On the one hand, the new technology will create new job sectors in their own right; this is very much a repeating pattern from the Industrial Revolution, when there was mass job migration from agriculture to textiles. For example, with the new technology we’ll see a migration from traditional manufacturing to electronic or virtual-only organisations, requiring very double-deep skills in IT and the particular market. The new technology will also create new jobs that the technology can’t do but that are now possible because of it, such as robotics engineers. Both types of new jobs will require high-level thinking, creativity and emotional intelligence.

The key challenge is that whilst these skills are what make us human, many of the new skills are very much counter to human nature.  Our basic fight-flee-freeze response is triggered by fears of failure of embarrassment, and these directly interfere with our ability to be creative.  There is much narrative on this, as you would expect, as this is probably the singular biggest challenge in implementing a successful lean framework. Not surprisingly, there has been a lot of research into how to overcome this. The authors then focus on how to overcome this natural, inhibiting cultural mindset in order to compete effectively.

They structure their review into two key areas.

The new smart

First, they define “NewSmart” — i.e., what it means to be smart in our current and evolving society, starting with the obvious anti-pattern, which is simply knowing more or getting the highest test results or making the fewest mistakes. These just doesn’t work anymore because this is what a machine can do. (This clearly creates another challenge within our broader education system but that is a subject for another day.)

“NewSmart shifts the focus from the quantity of data known to the quality of data known and being able to apply it from a thinking, learning and emotional intelligence perspective, and collaborate around it.  This isn’t a particularly revolutionary thought as, for example, most solution architects know a very simple principle in the data domain: the difference between “data” and “information.”

However, the authors put through a good argument and suggest there is a much higher order that needs to be understood.

The new humility

The second area is Humility. The definition is not about being meek, subdued or not worthy.  It is also a lot more than the simple definition of being modest about one’s own importance, albeit this is at the core. The evident anti-pattern is being confident, smart and strong (the old and traditional management style of red brick institutions). The authors’ definition, drawn from English and American psychology, is a mindset about oneself that is open-minded, self-accurate and “not about me,” and embraces the world as it is. Their assertion is to extol the virtues of humility that then enable the behaviours in the anti-pattern.

Finally, they define four core behaviours that enable NewSmart and Humility. These are Quieting Ego, Managing Self, Reflective Listening and Otherness (emotionally connecting and relating to others). These are explained in a lot of detail and there are definitely learning points in each one, although almost in contradiction to the core principle of NewSmart, there is almost too much over-prescriptive detail.

An obvious conclusion to me is to be “more human” — focus on more human excellence by being more agile, more adaptive, and a more enabling leader.

This is a good read. It’s the best review I have seen on a real review of humility and how to learn what could be considered a basic trait and turn this into a towering strength.

I finish this review with a relatively recent example of what I would term humility and how this was considered a towering strength. It’s been reported that the new CEO of Uber, Dara Khosrowshahi, admitted being “scared” to start his job at Uber: “I have to tell you, I am scared….I’ve been here at Expedia for so long that I’ve forgotten what life is like outside this place…..But the times of greatest learning for me have been when I’ve been through big changes, or taken on new roles — you have to move out of your comfort zone and develop muscles that you didn’t know you had.”

This post originally appeared in Neil Fagan’s blog.

Neil Fagan is CTO of the UK Government Security and Intelligence Account in Global Infrastructure Services. He is an enterprise architecture expert, leading teams of architects who work on solutions from initial concept through delivery and support. @neilfagan



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