An Essential Aspect of Leadership: Intellectual Humility

During this last week I have found myself writing about the concept of ‘intellectual humility’ to two different clients facing the failure of ‘a single answer approach’ to working with a complex issue. Further, I expect to draw attention to this issue many times in the weeks ahead as various leaders and managers try to resolve complex issues using techniques based exclusively on ‘scientific enquiry’.

Scientific enquiry and its mechanisms of logical analysis are important in our society, but they are not the panecea for understanding every issue that passes across management’s desk. In fact its value is becoming less and less as we, as a society, appreciate the interconnectivity between so many aspects of life. This includes an appreciation that is causing us to ask questions about narrowly conceived answers to problems in terms of ‘what else is affected? We are also becoming very concerned about so called ‘unintended consequences,’ interpreting the failure to take a holistic look across all areas of management and leadership as a mark of incompetence.

So what, you ask, has this to do with intellectual humility? With successive generations of problem solvers developing expert knowledge of ‘the facts’ there is now a tyranny of experts in all aspects of life. People, who claim to know based on the superior logic of their studies in a particular discipline, demand and are generally allowed to apply their formulated solutions to issues where at least one of the variables is related to their discipline. “Fix this bit,” they say, “and everything will be OK”. However, as they and we know, the issue will return very soon in some other guise. Why? Because the issue is complex and the dynamic of variables cuts across many disciplinary and experiential knowledge domains. Pulling one part out for attention is more likely to worsen rather than improve the situation.

How do we start to dissolve this tyranny of expertise? The first move has to be the building of a culture of intellectual humility. A culture in which we all recognise that no one knows all about a complex issue, and everyone knows something about the complex issue. In other words, we need to celebrate the knowledge others have, while they celebrate the knowledge we have. This is the core of intellectual humility. Bringing the many perspectives together so that a holistic view of a complex issue can be formed is a critical management strategy for all enterprises going forward;
it starts with each one of us adopting a stance of ‘intellectual humility’.

One of the experiences I had last week was in a government department seeking to introduce a raft of reforms where each reform had been developed in isolation of the others. The reforms were not coherent, as they had emerged from different disciplines that operate on different assumptions about the world. As a result the argument was about which assumptions were right with no room for the possibility that everyone had a partial and different view of society, indicating that no one’s assumptions are wrong but neither are they right.

The second experience arose from a debate in a university in which the professors have long taught the unquestionable ‘rightness’ of their approach to Business Administration. The difficulty for the professors in their way not being the only way was the fact that their sense of worth was tied up in their belief that they were right. Hence, an intervention that required each to collaborate and acknowledge the importance and value of each other’s knowledge was tearing
the faculty apart.

Working with complex issues requires a culture founded on intellectual humility. A culture in which we celebrate the unique contribution each can make.

Bruce McKenzie is the Associate Director of the Center for Systemic Leadership. He holds a degree from the University of Melbourne, a Post-Graduate Diploma in Urban and Regional Planning, and a Masters Degree in Systemic Development from the University of Western Sydney. He is also an accredited “Cognitive Edge” practitioner. He has been involved in building Graduate programs in business and systemics at Akershus University College in Norway, University of Liverpool’s School of Management and Open University in the UK as well as Dominican University of California’s GreenMBA,  Macquarie’s Graduate School of Management (Executive Leadership Program) and Australian Catholic University’s Centre for Executive and Professional Education. 

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