Humility in Leadership: Five Steps for Overcoming Our Leadership Biases

This post was written by LBB Fan and Co-Conspirator, Ryan Richards, and was originally posted on Lasting Change.

Beautiful drawing of the Ladder of Inference, showing how we filter and add layers of meaning to reality. Attributes to Chris Argyris, and the diagram to Peter Senge’s The 5th Discipline Fieldbook.

Houston Spencer and Mitchell Wade, two of the wisest people in my life, talk a lot about how exceptional leadership requires extra helpings of both hubris and humility.  As leaders, we need to be able to march towards a future that others might not yet see (hubris), and we need to be able to listen to other perspectives and respect the limits of our own understanding (humility).

I’d like to focus this blog post on the humility side of the leadership equation – in particular, upon the importance of acknowledging our biases and how to correct for them.

We often go through our days thinking that what we see is what is going on, as if we were video cameras, unbiased eyes taking in our environments.  In fact, what we perceive is only a fraction of what is really going on.  Take a look up from your computer for a moment and take in your surroundings.  Look out the window.  Look at the glass of the window.  Notice the shadows in the corners of your room.  Notice your hands.  Your breath.  Now return your attention to your computer screen.  All of these realities are going on simultaneously and providing your brain with sensory input, yet rarely do they actually make it all of the way to the forefronts of our minds.

A recent podcast on colors by RadioLab really drove home for me how truly limited our perceptions can be.  At one point, they used five color swatches, four of one color and the fifth of a slightly different hue, to test who could see the difference.  For all but two of the people interviewed, the swatches looked indistinguishable.  The two who could see the difference — an interior decorator and an painter — had spent much of their lives rigorously scrutinizing colors.  Their professions had trained their optical pallets to see color distinctions to which the rest of us were oblivious.  The producers of the episode explored this phenomenon even further, reviewing evidence that ancient peoples were unable to see the color blue — not because they were colorblind or that there wasn’t any blue to be seen, but because their minds had not been trained to see blue.  They did not have a mental model for blue to help them make sense of the sensory input.  Fascinating!

The jump from color to leadership is a short one.  Our mental models allow us to see certain things and blind us to others.  When we believe that the world is a dangerous or a caring place, for example, we look for and find evidence that supports this view, while filtering out the information that is contrary.  This serves us in many ways, as our mental models help us know that to which we ought to pay attention.  They become dangerous when we mistake our perceptions, which are based upon mental models, for reality.  There might be data we’re not seeing or other ways of interpreting the data we’re receiving.  I’ve included a diagram of the Ladder of Influence on the top right of this post that really captures this concept.

So how do we protect ourselves from the downsides of our mental models and embody humility as leaders?  Here are some ideas:

1) Acknowledge the gap.  Be honest with yourself that your brain filters information and that there is an inherent gap between your perceptions and reality.

Johari’s Window, a good schematic for where self reflection and feedback from others can reduce the size of your blind spot.

Johari’s Window, a good schematic for where self reflection and feedback from others can reduce the size of your blind spot.

2) Know yourself.  Come to know your mental models and biases.  Self reflection and feedback from others is a great way to shine light onto your facades and blind spots.

3) Upgrade your current mental models.  We can polish our lenses for making sense out of reality by refining our mental models.  Sometimes a mental model that served us as children or young adults just isn’t sufficient for a more complicated adult world.  For example, a mental image of a flat earth works for regional travel, but falls short when planning routs across the globe.  If you find that a better mental model is out there — often times a model with more nuance — feel free to switch out the old model for the new one.  The book Trade Up: Steps to Redesigning your Leadership from the Inside Out has a series of exercises for doing just that.  I’m also really looking forward to reading more about Polarity Management, a framework for mental models that really captures the nuance between black and white.

4) Add new models to your repertoire.  We know that adding a word for the color blue into one’s vocabulary prepares one to better distinguish that color from, lets say, green.  This is also true for the mental models we use as managers and leaders.  Some of the dance is also just getting a wider cannon of mental models to choose from.  Being a continuous learner is key to this.  Personally, I like exposing myself to new perspectives by watching TED Talks and listening to This American Life, but many messages and mediums will suffice.

5) Seek the Counterfactual.  This is perhaps the most important piece of advice I have for exercising humility in leadership.  It is what Ellen Schall, head of the NYU Wagner School of Public Service, dubs “seeking the counterfactual.”  When making an important leadership decision, ask yourself “what are other ways that I might read this situation?,” and, “what kind of information would give me reason to doubt my current interpretation?”  Seeking the counterfactual builds upon our recognition that we have biases and invites us to balance out our biases by testing our hypotheses.

Thanks for reading!  I’d be interested to hear about moments in your life where you discovered a blind spot where you were filtering out important information or how you’ve upgraded your mental models in order to better make sense out of a given situation.

This entry was posted in Capacity Building and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s