The Most Under-Appreciated Characteristic of Strong Leadership

3 Ways to Leverage Humility and Avoid the Trap of Overconfidence

Why do smart people make terrible decisions? At Catalyst several years ago, Malcolm Gladwell answered that question by going back to the Battle of Chancellorsville during the American Civil War.

“Fighting Joe” Hooker was a Major General in the Union army. In 1863 he squared off against General Robert E. Lee in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, near the village of Chancellorsville.

Exceedingly smart, Hooker set up an elaborate spy network. He knew more about the Confederate army than the Confederates did. Armed with detailed intelligence, Hooker positioned his troops in such a way that he surrounded Lee on three sides. What's more, his men outnumbered Lee’s two-to-one.

The Disease of Experts

Hooker was absolutely confident he would destroy Lee’s army. Lee’s only choice was to retreat to Richmond. The night before the battle Hooker told his troops, “God Almighty could not prevent us from victory tomorrow.” He was bold, audacious, and—as it turned out—overly-confident.

The problem is that information does not guarantee better decisions. In fact, as Gladwell pointed out, we tend to overestimate the value of additional information.

He cited the work of Dr. Stuart Hopkins, who did extensive research on this topic. Hopkins discovered additional information makes people more confident in their ability to solve a problem. But their actual results are not better. Sometimes, they're worse.

Gladwell called this overconfidence “the disease of experts.” They think think they know more than they actually do. In fact, they make mistakes precisely because they have knowledge.

This insight can be applied to countless situations. At the time, Gladwell used it to explain what happened during the Great Recession. It also explains what happened to Hooker.

The Trap of Overconfidence

When Lee realized he was surrounded on three sides, he began moving his troops south. Hooker assumed Lee was retreating to Richmond. His men relaxed. Some of them started celebrating. What they didn’t realize was that Lee was flanking their position.

Hooker was arrogant and overconfident. He was so certain of his victory, he didn’t prepare for this possibility.

Even though Lee was surrounded on three sides and outnumbered two-to-one, he was able to defeat Hooker. It was a stunning and demoralizing defeat for the Union army.

The lesson is this: In times of crisis, we think we need leaders who are bold, confident, and self-assured. But this is completely wrongheaded. What we really need are leaders who are humble and willing to listen.

3 Ways to Avoid the Trap

As leaders ourselves, how can we avoid becoming overconfident? Three ways:

  1. Listen to those around us. We cannot afford to create a culture that is not safe for dissent. Our people need to feel the freedom to disagree with us and tell us the truth.

  2. Plan for contingencies. We might be right. We might be wrong. We need to accept this and create a plan A and a plan B. We can’t afford to assume that our plans are infallible.

  3. Enlist the help of our team. When organizations are small, they can be run by a single, entrepreneurial leader. But when the organization gets bigger our leadership must change. It must become a more collective, collaborative effort.

Humility is the most under-appreciated characteristic of strong leadership. The good news is that, as leaders, we can learn. We can grow. If we don’t, we risk large-scale, public failures that will have a catastrophic, negative impact on the people we are entrusted to lead.

What specific actions are you taking to remain humble as a leader?

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