Humility and Moderation. Essential for Leadership Success?

This is an occasional blog on subjects pertaining to leadership, strategy, coaching, leadership development, and everything in between. You can sign up using the form at the left/below. © 2017 McKnight-Kaney.

New York Times columnist David Brooks almost always has something to teach that I value learning. Today's column is no exception. Entitled, “What Moderates Believe,” it connects with what I‘ve been writing lately about the role of humility and moral authority in leadership.

Noting that Trump is a very unpopular president, Brooks, a Republican, asks, If Donald Trump is not the solution to this nation‘s problems, what is? For him, the answer is moderation, which he defines by listing several precepts that guide the behavior of the person who approaches problem solving in a moderate way.

I found myself thinking that Brooks‘ description of the behavioral tendencies of the moderate align well with most of the lists of effective leadership I‘ve read in the past many years. See if you agree. In some cases, I‘ve changed the wording to better fit the language of organizational life. 

Humility is the fundamental virtue. Brooks defines humility as “radical self-awareness from a position outside yourself,” noting that moderate leaders realize that their perspective is only one of many.

No one has a corner on the truth. Going along with this, the moderate understands that solving big, complex problems does not happen by thinking simplistically and in a partisan manner. When breakthroughs are needed, it probably makes sense to realize that none of us is as smart as all of us. Every perspective probably contains some aspect of the truth.

Breakthrough solutions require time, effort, and listening to others‘ views. Imagine the technological and political breakthroughs that would never have happened if the partisans did not give way to another point of view. The fancy word is syncretistic, i.e., the best solutions require doing what seems impossible, combining seeming irreconcilable ideas. Moderates can do this; partisans often can't.

There is more to success than winning. Some leaders are excessively driven to get results and are willing to distort the facts to win their case. Moderates do not do this. Instead, they understand that the person who seeks to win every battle is not a good team player. The hyper-competitive worker is self-centered.

In organizational politics, the fallout from hyper-competitiveness is always worse than the advantages of a partisan victory. Moderates understand that one may win the war over which software package is the best, but if the people whose support is needed to implement it, the victory is hollow.

Partisan behavior is blinding. I can do no better than to quote Brooks here, “Partisan debate sharpens opinion, but partisans tend to justify their own sins by pointing to the other side’s sins. Moderates are problematic members of their [faction]. They tend to be hard on their peers and sympathetic to their foes.”

Brooks concludes with the observation that “Moderation requires courage. Moderates don’t operate from the safety of their ideologically pure galleons. They are unafraid to face the cross currents, detached from clan, acknowledging how little they know.”

In this era of superstar CEOs, are we getting it wrong? Maybe we need outsized personalities at the helm, but surely the organizational ship functions better—more creatively, more efficiently—when the forces of moderation prevail, not the forces of winning.