I Could Be Wrong


Over at the Inside Higher Ed blog “Confessions of a Community College Dean,” Matt Reed writes about the relationship between leadership and intellectual humility.  It’s a nice reflection on an important virtue:

In a sense, intellectual humility strikes me as the everyday equivalent of the scientific method. You make the best call you can at a given moment, knowing full well that new information may come along later that will change your view. Keeping an eye open for that kind of information makes it likelier that you’ll avoid barreling headfirst into an iceberg.

But intellectual humility is often an awkward fit, at best, with the styles of leadership to which many people respond.

They respond to tub-thumping certainty. They like clear, simple, confident rallying cries. They perceive changing positions — if they notice — as a sign of corruption, hypocrisy, or weakness. They want answers, and they identify people with the answers they give.  

In other words, a certain kind of follower rewards either dishonesty or shallowness in a leader. The very trait likely to lead to better decisions can carry a direct political cost.

Some leaders lack intellectual humility altogether, so for them, the conflict is external. They keep wondering why the world frustrates them. You can spot them by their remarkable lack of self-awareness.

Some, like the younger George Wallace, consciously choose closed-mindedness specifically because of its political payoff. When the political math changes, you can always declare that you suddenly see the light.

Others resolve the tension through charisma and/or patronage. If you’re likeable enough, you may be able to charm your way through some strategic pivots. I think of that as the Reagan strategy, named after its master practitioner. (If you prefer, you could say something similar of Bill Clinton.) If you can charm or buy your way out of the political downsides of shifting positions, then you can respond to the world as it changes. Nixon can go to China.

Read the entire post here.