Prior to Barack Obama’s decision in April 2016 to authorise the mobilisation of ground troops in Iraq and Syria, he had called the US’ intervention in the region ‘a dumb war’, he had opposed previous troop surges during the Bush administration, promised to withdraw all troops by 2008 which was then extended to 2010... and then 2011, and finally in 2014 categorically declared that the US would not have boots on the ground in the region. Critics of Obama labelled him a hypocrite, accused him of going back on his word and perceived him as an unreliable President for his change in policy. Regardless of subject and context, the opposition to people making considered decisions and changing positions has always puzzled me. Reading Paul Ratner’s article finally gave me a label to describe and commend Obama’s decision switch; intellectual humility.
In leadership I feel that this quality is essential, not only for the person making the decision to have, but for those that the change in decision effects to understand. Far too often in my military career did I see a plan being stuck to, regardless of feedback and results, simply because the leader had committed themselves to a certain course of action. The result of this dogmatic approach led to the ultimate failure of an objective which could have been salvageable if the leader had the intellectual humility to reassess and change their mind. Likewise, when I have had leaders change their mind mid-process, I’ve seen peers and subordinates complain and moan that ‘the boss doesn’t know what they’re doing’ despite the end result turning out positive because of the change in plan mid-way through.
Ratner quotes Mark Leary, a professor of psychology and neuroscience, who draws a parallel to the business world in stating that it is important for business leaders and managers to have a broadness of perspective and take as many other perspectives into account as possible. As time trickles on, situations change and perspectives shift and therefore it is understandable for initial plans to alter. However, I would argue that the danger of this is when the plans change on a whim, without consultation and effective understanding of the reasons why, to those it effects particularly if they have low intellectual humility.
Intellectual humility is important on both sides of an interaction when it comes to successful influence, particularly in change management. If this mutual awareness is present, then the perception of the change and those responsible for it, will be a lot more favourable.
Researchers from Duke University say that intellectual humility is an important personality trait that has become in short supply in our country.