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The 2,500-year-old secret to successful leadership

The Secret by Edmund Blair Leighton
The Secret by Edmund Blair Leighton
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Among history’s many thought leaders, Plato may sport the most impressive resume of the bunch. The Athenian philosopher founded the Academy. His Dialogues are required reading at every institution of higher learning. His ideas shaped the history of Western religion and politics in obvious, and less than obvious, ways. And as A.N. Whitehead once quipped, the entire European philosophical tradition “consists of a series of footnotes to Plato”.
A fraction of comparable accomplishments would make for a boastworthy LinkedIn profile, yet it was Plato who said—through his teacher and hero figure Socrates—that “I neither know nor think that I know.” This wasn’t a rhetorical humble-brag on Plato’s part. Such intellectual humility served as the keystone to his educational upbringing.
In Plato’s early Dialogues, Socrates teaches not by giving the answers to a fill-in-the-blank quiz later in the semester. He endlessly questions the assumptions of his contemporaries and even himself. Because he acknowledges his limits, Socrates values the input of others and recognizes their contributions. And no matter how rich his understanding, he never stops learning nor uses his intellect to discourage others.
This is textbook intellectual humility, and according to David Robson, science writer and author of The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes, it is more than just a virtue. It’s the secret to successful leadership, one that’s been hiding in plain sight for more than 2,500 years.

Intellectual humility: philosophy tested, science approved

In an article for the BBC, Robson shows that science is catching up with Plato’s insight and points to several studies supporting intellectual humility’s value in leadership. 
One study, part of a 2013 report published in Organization Science, surveyed undergraduate students taking a management course. It first asked the participants to rate each other on modesty and then tracked their performance over the year. The results showed that students with the highest modesty ratings not only performed better but contributed more to the team. In fact, these ratings served as a better predictor of performance than general intelligence, with the researchers questioning whether modesty could compensate for overall lower capabilities.
“The people with the greatest humility may not have started out the strongest,” Robson writes, “but by acknowledging the gaps in their knowledge and then correcting them, they made the greatest improvements over the course. […] Overall, the humbler students were just more ‘teachable’ than the less humble students, irrespective of their actual IQ.”
Another study published in the report looked at the relationship between humble leaders and metrics of employee satisfaction. It identified positive, though moderate, correlations between leaders who expressed humility and employees who enjoyed higher job engagement and satisfaction. These same leaders also enjoyed higher retention rates.
Beyond that report, Robson also cites studies finding that less arrogant CEOs encouraged greater collaboration and communication and that leaders who asked questions retained the trust and respect of employees and colleagues.
Looking beyond leadership and Robson’s article, the scientific literature suggests that open-mindedness doesn’t just offer benefits from the top down but across the org chart.
A 2011 study out of Baylor University found that supervisors rated the job performance of employees who are honest and humble higher than those who are not. And a series of five studies published in The Journal of Positive Psychology found intellectual humility to be more strongly associated with traits for acquiring knowledge such as curiosity, reflective thinking, and intellectual engagement.
“[H]umility and honesty not only correspond with job performance, but it [sic] predicted job performance above and beyond any of the other five personality traits like agreeableness and conscientiousness,” Dr. Wade Rowatt, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience who helped lead Baylor’s 2011 study, said in a release.

A lost leadership art?

But if intellectual humility is such a godsend—complete with the backing of a philosophical saint—then why does it seem in such short supply? Especially among leaders such as…well, supply your own examples here.
Robson argues one culprit is the self-esteem movement of past decades. Rather than praising a healthy balance of confidence and modesty, self-esteem gurus asked parents and teachers to flood young minds with unrelenting positivity, leaving sparse mental bandwidth for criticism or doubt. Though well-intentioned, these lessons primed people to view challenges and self-questioning as destructive to their hardwon self-worth, not as tools of potential growth.
But we see the self-esteem movement as part of a larger issue. Namely, that social institutions and the corporate world undervalue humility and encourage overconfidence and unrestrained optimism.
Psychologist Daniel Kahneman makes this case in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow:
However, optimism [and overconfidence] is highly valued, socially and in the market; people and firms reward the providers of dangerously misleading information more than they reward truth tellers. One of the lessons of the financial crisis that led to the Great Recession is that there are periods in which competition, among experts and among organizations, creates powerful forces that favor a collective blindness to risk and uncertainty.
Kahneman backs up his claims with many studies, more than we can relay here. But a quick highlight reel would include:

  • A study finding that 40 percent of physicians who were “completely certain” of their antemortem diagnosis were proven incorrect postmortem.
  • A study showing a close-to-zero correlation between CFO short-term stock market predictions and the stock’s value.
  • Evidence that firms with award-winning CEOs underperform in both stock and operating performance.
  • And, of course, the many cognitive biases that generate an “illusion of control” and lead us to disregard information we may not know.

It’s these cognitive biases that create mental blind spots in us, leading people to overestimate their abilities and knowledge while devaluing what they don’t know and the skills of others. Leaders who are self-assured and believe the odds don’t apply to them play into these biases. Collectively, that results in a society that rewards overconfidence with status and success—even though research shows such leaders take greater risks and, should those risks not payout, accrue greater costs.
This social preference is why we propel the biographies of celebrities and CEOs who beat the odds to the bestsellers list, yet never write books on the countless others crushed beneath those same odds. It’s also why we champion the promises of our favored candidates every election cycle, while conveniently ignoring the crusty bumper stickers on our car fenders proclaiming those same promises.

The Socratic-minded leader

None of this is to say that optimism and confidence are dangerous or not praiseworthy. Far from it. Kahneman is clear that optimism is a blessing for those who enjoy its company. And confidence is crucial for any leader, from the CEO of a Fortune 500 company to a city councilmember. 
Without either trait, it’s impossible to assume the risks necessary to pursue a dream, try something new, or commit to social progress. While we don’t know this with certainty, we’d wager that Plato must have enjoyed a deep well of both to accomplish what he did.
These traits, however, become costly when uncoupled from modesty, curiosity, open-mindedness. Intellectual humility prevents egotism, ignorance, and wish-full thinking from upending a bright career or potentially fruitful operation.
By seeking out the opinions and knowledge of others, the Socratic-minded leader shines a light on their blind spots and expands their vantage point through the experiences and knowledge of others. Less sure that the odds will always bend in their favor, they mitigate the risks they must take and avoid those they don’t have to. And while people may not be in awe of their social auras, these leaders do enjoy the trust and respect of their teams.
Nourish your team’s intellectual curiosity with lessons ‘For Business‘ from Big Think+. At Big Think+, more than 350 experts, academics, and entrepreneurs come together to create a curated library for lifelong learning. Develop your leadership skills with video lessons such as:

  • Become an Enlightened Leader, with Steven Pinker, Professor of Psychology and Author, Enlightenment Now
  • Stretch Your Team’s Imagination, with Susan Schneider, Philosopher and Author, Artificial You
  • Communicate Across Cultures, with Chris Hadfield, Retired Canadian Astronaut and Author, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
  • Collaborate Intelligently: Energize Yourself and Others, with Angie McArthur, CEO, Professional Thinking Partners, and Co-Author, Collaborative Intelligence
  • Strengthen Your Emotional Agility, with Susan David, Psychologist, Harvard Medical School, and Author, Emotional Agility

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