David Brooks’s New York Times column today—on humility in leadership—plays an elegant, if not uncommon, trick via the inversion of a simple pronoun. Once he starts to describe the “humble hound” model of leadership, he starts to describe a woman. We learn how “she” would lead, how she would think, what she believes. She sounds great. She sounds like what we want in our leaders, in our politicians (in our priests), in our husbands.
Brooks’s Humble Hound Leader is comfortable with nuance, used to foregoing credit, and at peace with life as a process of “navigating uncertainty.” Yes, she sounds like most women we know.
Alongside the boardroom lion model of leadership, you can imagine a humble hound model. 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 e-mail while making decisions. She knows she has a bias for caution, so she writes a memo advocating the more daring option before writing another advocating the most safe. She knows she is bad at prediction, so she follows 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 pseudo-objective models and confident projections that give the illusion of control. She has to remember George Eliot’s image — that life is like playing chess with chessmen who each have thoughts and feelings and motives of their own. It is complex beyond reckoning.
She spends more time seeing than analyzing. Analytic skills differ modestly from person to person, but perceptual skills vary enormously. Anybody can analyze, 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.
We welcome a world in which leaders embrace humility, one in which what Brooks proposes for business leaders is adopted more broadly, from the OEOB to the bedroom; from the little local course to the last tee at Augusta. Humility might not net the Green Jacket, but it likely maximizes longer-term, vastly more visceral results. Now that Tiger’s back to Buddhism, humility’s on the rise.