I recently listened to an episode of my favorite podcast EconTalk focused on the concept of balancing intellectual humility with the confidence and authority that is expected of a leader.
The guest on the show was David Deppner, who is the CEO of Psyberware and an EconTalk listener – and the episode grew out of a Q&A session at a live EconTalk session.
Anyone in a leadership position will often get questioned or challenged about the future of their organization – especially if they are operating in a highly competitive industry or undergoing the turmoil and rigamarole of something like fundraising.
We had many dark moments throughout the history of South Loop Strength & Conditioning where we were just one bad break away from shutting it down – leases falling through, shady business partners, losing in the market to more established competitors, etc.
What should a leader say during the dark times when clients or employees are asking for reassurance?
Folks with a penchant toward intellectual honesty may want to acknowledge the fact that they’re kind of winging it and that, at any moment, everything could fall apart and the business could crater.
However, this message does not exactly inspire those around them to dive in, work hard, and keep pushing forward.
This kind of behavior is anathema to the type of person considered with intellectual humility we are discussing – and they probably couldn’t even pull it off if they tried.
So, what should they do instead?
I think the key distinction here is understanding why things seem uncertain to different folks.
For the leader, everything is uncertain and fuzzy because they have a very high resolution view of their organization, its strategy, and the threats facing it.
They likely think in probabilities and understand that – even with perfect planning and execution – there are all kinds of long-tail events that could completely change the course of their business.
They see the emergence and complexity in both the markets and in the layers of their own organization that magically results in their business staying afloat, and they recognize that much of how these systems organize is out of their control.
This high-resolution view is not terribly comforting, but most business leaders have probably grown comfortable with it since it’s a constant overlay of their reality.
For employees and clients, their uncertainty comes from a low-resolution view of the situation.
They don’t understand the strategy of the business.
They don’t have an awareness of the competitive landscape of the marketplace.
They don’t have comfort with the layers of management and accountability in an organization that magically keeps things chugging along.
So, a detailed and “honest” answer about the uncertainty of the business doesn’t serve them since they don’t have the framework to appreciate the nuance.
They see low-resolution uncertainty and would need to have a high speed upload brain upload to
learn kung fu appreciate the high-resolution uncertainty view.
So, it is totally fair to communicate to someone at the level that they’re at. You don’t need to lay out all of the conditionals, all of the threats, all of the long tail events that could either make or break the business.
This doesn’t mean being a bloviating huckster peddling an unrealistic vision – it just means adjusting your communication to be appropriate for your audience.