My humbling leadership start

March 5, 2019 by Joshua
in Education, Leadership

Business school humbled me from before I started my first classes there. I came in thinking, “I have a PhD in physics, so all the math will be easy, and I ran a company, so I know all the business. I’ll have fun for a couple years and earn a degree that will be my passport to success.”

On the contrary, I found finance and accounting not about math, but organization that I didn’t understand. Moreover, all my classmates understood it better.

And business was about people, emotions, relationships, and other blind spots I didn’t know I was blind to. Again, all my classmates seemed to know these areas better. For that matter, at all.

Below I offer two specimens I recently stumbled across from 2005 illustrating my ignorance, blindness, and lack of skill, both results of the 360-degree feedback we each undertook for my first leadership class. Both are graphs showing my view of my skills in six leadership areas compared to my peers’ and colleagues’ views.

The leadership areas in question are:

  • Working in teams
  • Decision making
  • Motivating self and others
  • Managing conflict
  • Influencing others
  • Perceiving others

In a 360-degree feedback, you ask people you’ve reported to, peers, and, if possible, people who reported to you to fill out a questionnaire on how you act in each area. The graphs below show the results.

The horizontal axis of the first shows my views of my skills in each area. The vertical shows my classmates’, averaged. If I saw myself as others did in an area—a sign of self-awareness— that area’s dot would lie on the diagonal line y=x. If others saw me as more skilled than I did, the dot would lie above the line.

Instead, all my dots lie below the line—not a sign of humility but of hubris. I considered myself more skilled in every area than others did. Interpret it as you will, but I would say the farther the dot from the line, the lower one’s self-awareness.

I can only interpret a graph like the above as showing an overconfident person with low self-awareness.

The second graph shows similar data as the first, but instead of just my classmates’ views, the vertical axis shows peers’ from earlier jobs who were kind enough to answer the questionnaire, despite my no longer working where I used to work with them.

The results look similar: all my dots but one—working in teams—below the line. The saving grace of that one point more reinforcing the trend of the other eleven than meaning much to me.

The Meaning

The meaning of these graphs: by Columbia Business School’s measure, based on colleagues’ and classmates’ experience working with me, on leadership, I was a bull in a china shop.

The experience humbled me, which I needed because you can’t fill a cup that’s already full, which I was, with myself. I had to empty what I thought I knew.

The good news: I could look forward to learning leadership not as the cakewalk I naively expected, but a big learning experience, which it turned out to be.

Business school ended up becoming one of my life’s greatest learning and growth experience.

Before then, I thought you had to be born a leader. This experience helped counter that belief, to where I consider it outright wrong. Learning the skills as an adult, I believe I came to understand the structure of what worked in leadership and how to teach it, in ways people who learned it younger may not get.

That is, I speak English fluently, but can’t tell you all the rules I follow, nor can I teach it to others. Having learned French later, I can tell you the rules of when to use the subjunctive and so on. Or rather, I could when I spoke it conversationally after living in Paris for a year, but that was 1990, and I’ve forgotten it since then.

The decade-plus since business school led to my researching, developing, and applying more effective ways of learning and growing than what I now consider the passive learning styles of reading and writing papers, case studies, and other academic, analytical techniques.

Now I teach and coach experiential, active, project-based learning.

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