After the past pandemic year, everyone is anxious to move forward–no one more than leaders. No matter the size or sector, leaders share a deep-seated hunger to deliver, to show results after a long drought, and reap rewards. With that hunger comes impatience, and often, even if unintended, a high degree of arrogance. It’s a danger zone that especially leaders in uncertain times cannot afford to drift into.
Being the leader is imbued with expectations, including that whatever the hurdle, you alone as leader must possess some superhuman ability to overcome it. It’s one of those deeply flawed expectations central to our shared mythology around leading, a myth that insists on the idea of leader-as-hero. Leadership is far more complex, something true in any environment, but especially in the current one. The truth is leadership is at its most impactful when it is a shared undertaking–shouldered not just by those at the top, but by every single person in the organization. When ‘the many’ lead, the odds not just of successfully navigating uncertainty, but of thriving in it as well rise exponentially. But no leader can get there if they haven’t embraced the most challenging leadership lesson of all: humility.
Peak performance, not once but ongoing, is what leaders want most. Yet the research repeatedly shows that to continue to perform at peak, a leader must embrace two things: openness and discomfort. Both are bigger than you might think. Openness that results in repeated peak performance doesn’t just mean the willingness to explore new ways, but to do so boldly, knowing that as you do, you personally will not always be queen or king of the hill. You won’t have all the answers either. And the best ideas will often come from elsewhere. In other words, to find truly open head space, you have to share the lead, be repeatedly humble, and even be wrong. In the long shadow of leader-as-hero, such things can result in enormous discomfort.
The hopeful news is that, humility, like good leadership, is best pursued gradually. And even the smallest expressions of it can usher in a chance for those in the lead to open up, bit by important bit to a new and necessary way of looking at leadership. Though I write as a so-called expert here, it’s a lesson I’ve been reminded of as well. Allow me to share my humble pie with an example.
In the process of researching for my book on creativity (The Language of Man: Learning to Speak Creativity), I had the distinct and heady honor of interviewing nearly six dozen MacArthur Fellows. These were winners of the Genius Award for creativity. In a way, the award is their own ever-after reminder that humility is a vital skill. Once you are labeled a genius, there’s an expectation that every word you speak and everything you do will exude pure genius. It’s a tall order that no Fellow I spoke to cherished, and one most had learned to meet with extraordinary humility. In an odd role reversal, after interviewing so many of these amazing souls, I unconsciously began to assume a mindset of de facto leader of the project. I began to feel everyone expected to know everything about MacArthur Fellows, creativity, and more. Until my conversation with Pedro Sanchez, that is. As I wrapped up my interview with the 2003 MacArthur winner and a celebrated agronomist, I asked a final question that had become my habit: “Is there anything we didn’t touch on or something important I didn’t ask you?” What followed was a whack-on-the-head lesson in humility.
“What do you do for fun?” Sanchez responded. Admittedly, I was a bit thrown to be put in the position of answering instead of asking the questions. I babbled on about kayaking, hiking, and surfing until Sanchez graciously interrupted and said, “No. What do you do for fun? That’s the question you didn’t ask me.” He was pointing out the obvious–that play is one of the most vital elements of creativity. And I, the leader of the conversation, had failed to ask him about it. There was no irreparable embarrassment, no permanent points taken off my score card as a skilled professional. There was simply a laugh, a lesson, and a necessary dose of humility, the thing we all need now and then, no matter the leadership role we play.