Humility as a Core Leadership Quality

A recent New York Times Fixes column about promising social change initiatives highlighted the story Blue Engine, an initiative in New York City schools that has a new model to boost the rates of high school students getting into college. Instead of going with the tide of reformers focusing on individual teacher accountability and pay for performance, Blue Engine has pursued a different model, focusing on supporting teachers more fully and the approach has delivered very positive results. An interesting story, but here was the part of the article that caught my attention:

Blue Engine was born in the wake of a disappointing eight-year educational intervention led by its founder, Nick Ehrmann. And it shows. There is a refreshing humility baked into its model — particularly in the core idea that teachers need lots more support than they are given to do what they are expected to do.

The column goes on to describe how in his first attempt at innovating in education, after six years, he found that the hundreds of thousands of dollars his non-profit had invested “had not had a shred of impact on academic achievement.”

I appreciate the idea of humility being baked into his model. I can relate to Ehrmann’s experience of having passion for a solution and charging in to make change happen. I have seen more examples than I would like of a non-profit, foundation, and/or social entrepreneur coming in from the outside with ideas on how to fix a problem, i.e., intervene in a system to improve its outcomes. How common it is to jump in without really understanding the system one is trying to change, without engaging deeply with those who live and work in the system or are impacted by it, and without understanding the crowded landscape of other players already working in the same space. Each non-profit and/or the funders who invest in them work to prove that their way works – having a sense of humility that your answer may well be wrong is not something that is encouraged.

I have recently been working with the Garfield Foundation and their Collaborative Network Initiative to develop a field guide on how to develop collaborative networks to change systems. A core part of Garfield’s process, which they used in the RE-AMP Network, is to invest time developing a robust shared understanding of the system you are working to change, using systems mapping. In a recent interview for this project with Jim Ritchie-Dunham, who did systems mapping for the Energy Action Network of Vermont, he said:

Our approach to mapping looks at “what is the behavior we want to change and what are core dynamics that influence that?” It’s an acknowledgement that some people have a better understanding of how things work than others (i.e., their mental model corresponds better with how things actually work). Everyone has an opinion about how things work, but most people’s mental models are wrong. Is it possible to find people whose story corresponds carefully with what is actually happening. The art of this is to find models that correspond with reality and piece them together in a way that describes the dynamic we are observing today and how to shift those interactions to achieve a different behavior.”

If most of our mental models are wrong, this brings us back to the need to approach all of these initiatives with humility, going in with a hypothesis that we are open to changing. In another interview with Eugene Kim, a network/collaboration consultant, I noticed that he often said “my hypothesis is…” or “the hypothesis we are going to test is…” often followed by “I’m not sure if that will turn out to be right.” I found this a refreshing quality – he expressed it with a spirit of curiosity and openness to what could be learned (not a fixed promotion of his opinion or sureness he was right.)

This quality of humility is one we can personally cultivate and instill in the culture of our networks and organizations. It ultimately enables us to learn and adapt more readily when things do not work out as we planned (as they will often do.) In the tech world, a culture that tolerates failure has become rooted and it is common to “pivot” when an initial idea does not work and one reinvents the model. In the Blue Engine example, the entrepreneur’s ability to pivot after a failure, and then with newfound humility, come up with a new model, led to a much greater impact.

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