Humility Is the New Smart: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: March 16th, 2017 by bobmorris

Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age
Edward D. Hess and Katherine Ludwig
Barrett-Koehler Publishers (January 2017)

“NewSmart”: Excellence at the very highest levels of cognition and initiative

What will be the percentage of jobs that technology will replace in the United States during the next two decades? Estimates vary but not that much. There seems to be a consensus: a range of 45-50% between now and 2037. Meanwhile, life expectancies will probably increase 12-15% by then.

Whatever the various percentages prove to be, the most serious implications are obvious. Here are two. First, whatever the nature and extent of the new technologies may be, humans will have do what machines cannot or out-perform them. Also, humans will have to develop the skills necessary to collaborate effectively with those machines. Edward Hess and Katherine Ludwig focus on what they characterize as “The Smart Machine Age” (SMA) and also on the development of “SMA Skills”: thinking, innovative thinking, creativity, and the kind of high emotional engagement with others that fosters relationship and collaboration.

Yes, humans must be well-prepared to partner with machines but also with other human/machine partnerships. Extensive research conducted by IBM indicates that, for example, Watson or a Global Grandmaster cannot win a chess match against Watson a Global Grandmaster that are working as a team. This should come as no surprise.

In this volume, Hess and Ludwig offer several valuable insights as to the nature of great leadership. One of the most important qualities is humility. Why? “Because we know from scientific research that that two big inhibitors of quality thinking, learning, and emotionally engaging with others are our ego and our fears. Studies of high-performance learning organizations confirmed these findings. To mitigate ego and fear and exceed at the highest level of human thinking and emotional engagement requires a new mindset that embraces humility.” That is, “a mindset about oneself that is open-minded, self-accurate, and ’not all about me,’ and that enables one to embrace the world as it ‘is’ in the pursuit of human excellence.”

As Jim Collins explains in Good to Great, Level 5 leaders are those “who lead with a powerful mixture of personal humility plus professional will. Every good-to-great transition in that research began with the emergence of a Level 5 leader who deflected attention from himself, maintained a low profile, and led with inspired standards rather than inspiring personality.” That is, Level 5 leaders have an “extra dimension”: a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will. They are somewhat self-effacing individuals who deflect adulation, yet who have an almost stoic resolve to do absolutely whatever it takes to make the company great, channeling their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company. It’s not that Level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interest. Indeed, they are incredibly ambitious—but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution and its greatness, not for themselves.”

Those who read this book will be much better-prepared to succeed in the Smart Machine Age by avoiding or overcoming all manner of challenges and barriers to the development of skills needed. I hasten to add that many (if not most) human limits are self-imposed. This is what Henry Ford had in mind when observing, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re probably right” and what Pogo had in mind when announcing, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Based on their own research in a variety of high-performance learning organizations, Edward Hess and Katherine Ludwig explain how to establish and then sustain these fundamental behaviors: Quieting Ego, Managing Self (i.e. one’s thoughts and emotions), Reflective Listening, and Otherness (i.e. emotionally connecting and relating to others) or what Dan Goleman identifies as emotional intelligence.

Think of this book as both a survival kit and an operations manual that can help almost anyone succeed during a unique period when the global workplace has become more volatile, more uncertain, more complex, and more ambiguous than at any prior time that I can remember. Accelerating personal growth as well as professional development will become even more essential in the years to come. Meanwhile, it would be a good idea to keep this assertion in mind, made by Alvin Toffler almost 50 years ago: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

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One Response

  1. Camilyn says:

    Fascinating. Thank you again for helping me find great books with great ideas.

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