Leading with Humility

Last week I was fortunate to have lunch with one of my favorite thinkers, David Brooks. It felt a little bit like when I had a chance to hear how Charlie Rose thinks up close – I was inspired, thrilled, and frankly in absolute awe for how they think and approach the world. I tried to take notes while he was talking but I can’t quite read my own notes … so I’m posting this note on the Web to try and jog my memory.

The main takeaway I got was David’s deeply rooted sense of curiosity around the concept of humility. He’s written one of my favorite essays on the topic for the NYT here and more recently here. he told me a story about a newspaper publisher he once worked with who would tour the country seasonally to generate sales. David would be invited along on these trips once in a while to give a short talk. He commented on how the publisher would tell his clients in all frankness, “You know … we’re not doing a good enough job in our work. We could have done *that* differently, and *this* differently, and there is so much we need to do better.” Note that this was a “sales” call – which is quite extraordinary when you think about it. David mentioned that it wasn’t a gimmick. It was exactly how the publisher felt about how well (or not) he was leading his organization. And clients signed on for even more ads.

I find this story interesting, because it works counter to what we usually expect of leaders: for them to be perfect, to know and to be able to say exactly how great a job they are doing, and to never, ever, ever express doubt in their own ability to lead – when in reality, we know that in this complex, ever-changing world today, nobody really has the answers that pave the 100.0% perfectly prescribable path to the future.

We closed our lunch on a thought that will pleasantly haunt me for the coming weeks. David asked out loud, “Is it possible to be argumentative and humble at the same time?” I humbly leave this thought for you too. -JM