The Wisdom of Humility

Lately I’ve been reflecting 0n the impact of mistakes on leadership, and how important humility becomes to learning from those mistakes.  An article in The Washington Post this week describing the humility of Dr. James Peebles, who just won the Nobel Prize for physics, was a nice book end to the “great and unmatched wisdom” self-commentary we had heard earlier in the week.

As job titles go, it’s difficult to find one more formidable than Albert Einstein Professor of Science at Princeton University, so we can’t be surprised when a longtime occupant of that post finally wins the Nobel Prize. At 84, Phillip James Edwin Peebles — Jim, to friends and colleagues — shares this year’s prize for his work that helped to explain more than nine-tenths of everything that exists.

The article goes on to not only describe the humility of Dr. Peebles, but how the quest for knowledge itself requires humility.

Isn’t it likely, then, that we are closer to the beginning than to the end of learning and discovery? Perfect knowledge is not just around the corner, and yet we must act as though we know what we’re doing. Paralysis is not an option. The attitude of mind that balances these opposites — the awareness of our limits, on one hand, and the urgency of decisions, on the other — is humility.

Imagine how much happier and more productive our national and international debates could be if we all approached them with the humility of a genius professor (the Einstein Professor!) asking, “what if we’re missing most of this picture?” We’d be more open, more respectful, more inquisitive, more inclusive — all virtues that flow from the principle virtue: humility.

That becomes the classic leadership challenge.  We are encouraged to act quickly, to make changes, to improve – yet we rarely have all the answers.  As leaders we must search for knowledge, make decisions based on limited knowledge, and know that we may not have all the answers and even information.  Humility opens our mind to accept inputs from others and to the possibility – and perhaps even desire – for mistakes that we can learn from.

We don’t know everything and we don’t know what we don’t know, and we will make mistakes and hopefully learn from them.  Recognizing and accepting that, exposing our vulnerability to mistakes to others, is critical for effective leadership.

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