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Humility in learning critical for leadership

Humility in learning critical for leadership

CAN we continue to rely on theories of leadership that were developed many decades ago,comments long before the widespread adoption of the Internet? What makes a leader successful in highly volatile business environments, like those associated with digital disruption? IMD’s Global Center for Digital Business Transformation recently completed a research study to find the answers.

A number of attributes emerged that differentiated successful from less successful leaders, such as adaptability, a clear sense of vision, and a high level of engagement with internal and external stakeholders. But one attribute to emerge from the research came as a surprise: humility. In a series of face-to-face interviews with executives from both start-ups and large incumbents, the words “humble” and “humility” frequently cropped up. This finding was subsequently reinforced by a survey of over 1,200 executives from a cross-section of geographies and industries.However, this humility was not simply that embodied by a “humble leader,” but was instead allied to learning or knowledge — what we’ll term “humility in learning.”

On humility in general, C.S. Lewis remarked: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” This quote applies usefully to “humility in learning.” Successful leaders in volatile environments spend less time relying on what they already know, and proportionally more time on exploring new concepts and ideas. That is, humility in learning is not thinking less of what you already know, but thinking of what you already know, less.

This makes sense. In a constantly changing world, it is simply not possible that the leader will know the answer, or even be the most informed.

Being open to new ideas requires listening to others actively, gathering information broadly, and not allowing perceived wisdom or prior belief to constrain your thinking. Recent psychological studies have indeed shown that the “intellectually humble” are better able to spot their own errors, and positively correlates with the ability to discriminate ideas in memory.


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