The brain and humility

The brain and humility


The brain and humility


When King George III, of England, heard that George Washington had retired his commission as Commander of the Continental Congress, rather than naming himself President For Life, he proclaimed, “That act closing and finishing what had gone before… placed him in a light the most distinguished of any man living, and… the greatest character of the age.”


Good vs Great Leader


One defining trait that separates a great  leader from a good leader is humility. As Saint Augustine said: “Humility is the foundation of all the other virtues.” But how does leadership relate to humility? And how can understanding this make you a better leader?


A requisite for excellent leadership is to take into account the opinions of those on the team. The leader must assign the proper weight to these, sometimes contradictory, opinions when formulating a decision. Humility helps a high level leader make better decisions. Neuroscientists at Duke university reported on their findings regarding intellectual humility in 2017. They rated participants on their level of intellectual humility versus arrogance. They found that humble individuals were better able to distinguish evidentiary fact from opinion. Also, humble people were able to disagree with an argument without attributing negative personality traits (morality, honesty, competence and warmth)  to those they disagreed with.


Humility may have other benefits for the leader of a large team. A team of scientists, from the Institute Science and Technology in Austria and Harvard University, in 2018, reported that humility is both a great personality trait, and also a winning business strategy. They developed a game theoretic model to explain how the trait of humility may be advantageous and why highly talented people may seemingly choose to hide their positive attributes.


For example, by giving money away to charity we incur an initial cost but reap long term reputational benefits. So, does the humble philanthropist who chooses to remain anonymous donate money without regard to societal accolades? It would seem that an anonymous philanthropist is incurring the cost, but forgoing the benefits. The answer is that burying the signal is a signal in and of itself. 


The game theory goes like this. The donor who acts as if he wants no one to know about his generosity is taking a risk that he will not get the reputational credit for his good deed. He refuses to signal his virtue for the world to see. When a signal is buried, it has a diminished probability of being observed by any kind of receiver. In particular, buried signals entail the risk that receivers will never learn that the sender has sent a signal at all. However, the sender may have only certain receivers in mind (those who he is confident will be receptive to his hidden signal). If these important receivers do indeed decipher the signal, it counts for a lot more than if the sender behaved as if he wanted everyone to know. 


In this instinctual way, a great leader uses his humility to tremendous effect. He does not crow about his accomplishments. Quite the opposite, he showers the credit for achievements and victories to other members of the team. But he knows that the key people know the accomplishments were in large part the results of his efforts and decisions. The people who decipher the hidden signal are much more impressed with his leadership and character than they would have been if he were less outwardly humble.


Thus, humility in a leader helps him or her in at least two ways. Humility allows a leader to elicit and accept the best advice from a team. The humble leader is also more admired and respected than one who toots his own horn.