How to educate humble leaders?

WHAT are the three hardest words for a business leader to speak? Probably “I don’t know”. Business leaders are encouraged to exhibit confidence, competence and omniscience. But this leads to only two possible outcomes. They can fake it: pretend that they are right because they know that the admission of uncertainty and weakness is a career killer. Or they can believe their own hype, convinced that they are right and know better than everybody else.

This is where we now stand. A model has evolved whereby the leaders of business and finance, abetted by an elite group of economists, have convinced themselves that only they know the way the world should work.

However, we are at a tipping point. Nitin Nohria, the new dean of Harvard Business School, argues that we need leaders who demonstrate moral humility. I believe that we need an approach to leadership in which the starting point is our lack of knowledge, a frank admission that we do not know very much about how to build a sustainable system for business and society.

This is the beginning of Academic View: A new philosophy of leadership, a brief reflection by Ken Starkey, Professor at Nottingham University Business School, in The Economists‘ permanent section, Which MBA?, that Craig Cobane just pointed out to me.

As the Honors College is fully committed to WKU’s mission to ‘prepare students to be productive, engaged, and socially responsible citizen leaders of a global society,’ this raises fundamental questions about how to best educate students to become morally and – one might add, given the complexity of the global system – epistemologically humble leaders.

The School of Leadership Studies’ Faculty Discussion Group will explore a similar argument this spring which is made by Brene Brown in her most recent book, Daring Greatly:  How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.

She makes a broader argument and seems to push it further, addressing what might be the biggest obstacle to cultivating this very different style of humble leadership: the courage to reveal, work with, and lead from our own vulnerability.

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