“It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.”Epictetus
The Oak and the Reed – Aesop Fable #70
“The green reed which bends in the wind is stronger than the mighty oak which breaks in a storm.”– Confucius
A Giant Oak stood near a brook in which grew some slender Reeds. When the wind blew, the great Oak stood proudly upright with its hundred arms uplifted to the sky. But the Reeds bowed low in the wind and sang a sad and mournful song.
“You have reason to complain,” said the Oak. “The slightest breeze that ruffles the surface of the water makes you bow your heads, while I, the mighty Oak, stand upright and firm before the howling tempest.”
“Do not worry about us,” replied the Reeds. “The winds do not harm us. We bow before them and so we do not break. You, in all your pride and strength, have so far resisted their blows. But the end is coming.”
As the Reeds spoke a great hurricane rushed out of the north. The Oak stood proudly and fought against the storm, while the yielding Reeds bowed low. The wind redoubled in fury, and all at once the great tree fell, torn up by the roots, and lay among the pitying Reeds.
Better to yield when it is folly to resist, than to resist stubbornly and be destroyed. Aesop fable #70
Many early sources of this fable see it as a parable about pride and humility and advise how to survive in turbulent times. I think you will agree we are living in turbulent times in this age characterised by the acronym VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity). While we may agree that we live in turbulent times, we may not agree on the definition of the term humility. The term humility has taken centre stage on many recent episodes of the Innovation Show. Humility is the focus of episode 219 with Ed Hess, the author of “Humility is the New Smart, Rethinking Human Excellence In the Smart Machine Age”. Ed told us, one problem is that humility can be equated with “lowliness,” “meekness,” and “a sense of unworthiness” even when some of the greatest business books of our generation find humility is a key factor for success. Psychological assessments map potential leaders on a “humility scale.” The more humble the person, the greater the leadership potential.
Dr. Robert Hogan challenged decades of academic tradition and criticism to demonstrate personality’s impact on organisational success, pioneering the use of personality assessment to improve workplace performance. Contrary to popular thought, organizations should look for humility in a leader rather than charisma. A humble leader channels energy into the improvement of an organisation, whereas charismatic leaders leave a trail of chaos and ruin. Hogan says, “Organizations often overlook humble employees for leadership positions in favour of those who are charismatic. Charismatic people are charming and inspirational, but many turn out to be narcissistic, arrogant, and potentially exploitative. In contrast, humble leaders empower followers and promote team learning.”
For this Thursday Thought, I want to focus on how learning and humility go hand in hand.
The Higher You Grow the Deeper You Bow: The Dunning Kruger Effect
“The greater our knowledge increases the more our ignorance unfolds.” – John F. Kennedy
“Be like the bamboo the higher you grow the deeper you bow.” – Chinese proverb
The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people believe that they are smarter and more capable than they really are. Low ability people do not possess the skills needed to recognise their own incompetence. A trait common to those who read widely and learn profusely, is that the more they know, the more they know how little they really know. When someone relies on the most easily available knowledge to base decisions, they deny themselves the opportunity to make a critical decision. Why is this? One reason is physiological.
The average human brain makes up only 2% of our body weight, but accounts for 20-30% of our energy and oxygen. Despite its relatively small size, the brain has a large energy budget. To optimise energy consumption, our bodies conserve energy. Critical thinking, where we consider all angles of an argument and challenge our preconceived ideas uses much more energy than to reinforce our existing ideas. The brain is inherently lazy and its default settings convince us we are right. According to research conducted by Bojana Kuzmanovic from Germany’s Max Planck Institute, when we hear information that supports our assumptions, the brain activates reward centres of our brain. This means we must work extra hard to think critically. This is where humility can help us.
It is Time to Clap our Hands Red
“A formative influence on my undergraduate self was the response of a respected elder statesmen of the Oxford Zoology Department when an American visitor had just publicly disproved his favourite theory. The old man strode to the front of the lecture hall, shook the American warmly by the hand and declared in ringing, emotional tones: ‘My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years.’ And we clapped our hands red. Can you imagine a Government Minister being cheered in the House of Commons for a similar admission? “Resign, Resign” is a much more likely response!”- Richard Dawkins
Innovation show guest, AK Pradeep told us 90% of data on the internet was created in last 2 years. We create more data every 2 days than from dawn of man to the year 2000. The internet holds 5 zettabytes of data. Data scientists estimate by 2020 the internet will hold 10 times that amount. We are creating information faster than ever before. Technology is moving faster than the human ability to consume such knowledge. As science fiction author, Isaac Asimov astutely recognised, “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” What does it mean to think like a Richard Dawkins and clap your hands red? Ed Hess says it means acknowledging that our biases, ego, and emotional defensiveness could get in the way. It means we should actively pursue conflicting data by testing our beliefs with other knowledgeable people and asking them, “Do you agree or disagree?” and “What am I missing?” and to do this takes humility.
In a world of abundant data, the right strategy last year may be the wrong strategy this year. When the speed of change is so rapid, we need to empower our people to be sensors to the marketplace and to the workplace. We need to listen to our customers to solve their problems before they can even articulate those problems. We need to create work environments where everyone feels they have a voice from the newest recruit to the seasoned veteran. As Ed Hess, told us we need to acknowledge that we need the help of others to open our eyes to disconfirming data and different perspectives, which is why relationship building with other people will be even more important in this world of rapid change.
Culture, leadership and innovation are symbiotic, you need them all to succeed in this new world, together they form a Gordian knot of success. I moved from innovation consultancy to organisational development for this very reason, because you cannot change business models until you first change mental models. We cannot change what people do until we change how they think, feel, collaborate and interact.
THANKS FOR READING
On the innovation show this week, we have 3 fantastic episodes:
Episode 219: Humility Is the New Smart, Rethinking Human Excellence In the Smart Machine Age with Ed Hess
More about Ed: https://www.darden.virginia.edu/batten-institute/research/faculty-publications/humility
Episode 220:EP 220: Money Without Boundaries, How Blockchain Will Facilitate the Denationalisation of Money with Thomas J. Anderson
More about Tom: https://moneywithoutboundaries.com/
And just released EP 221: Bulletproof Problem Solving: The One Skill That Changes Everything with Charles Conn
More about Charles: https://bulletproofproblemsolving.com/
All are available at the usual links: