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How Humility Can Outsmart the Smart Machines Premium

The Power of the Humble Leader

Hess, Edward D.

Date: Fourth Quarter 2017

Tags: humility, humble leader, artificial intelligence, the internet of things, virtual reality

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Over the past few decades, work has grown increasingly automated. Advances in artificial intelligence, the internet of things, virtual reality, robotics, nanotechnology, deep learning, mapping the human brain, and biomedical, genetic and cyborg engineering will continue to revolutionize how most of us live and work. Soon technology will be able to learn as well as teach and program itself. The broader, more encompassing automation that is coming will affect many more workers than just those performing routine tasks on factory floors. The Smart Machine Age, or SMA, will affect many professionals, potentially being as disruptive and transformative as the Agricultural Age and Industrial Revolution were to generations of workers before us.

We need to get ready. We need a new way of thinking and behaving -- a new story -- for the SMA.

As I explore in my book, Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age, my story has two heroes: a mental model I call NewSmart, which goes hand in hand with humility. There are also four supporting actors, so to speak; four fundamental behaviors that will help us overcome our limitations: quieting the ego; managing the self (one's thinking and emotions); reflective listening; and otherness (emotionally connecting and relating to others). These are the NewSmart behaviors.

For most of us, these behaviors don't come naturally. We will have to make some radical changes. Based on my research into the science of critical thinking, innovative thinking, creativity, and emotional and social intelligence, and from my fieldwork inside high-performance learning organizations, I've learned that the best place to start is with one's personal beliefs, or mental models, changing the way we think in a manner that supports the desired behaviors we seek. Only by changing how we think about what it means to be "smart" in the SMA can we then change the behaviors that inhibit our ability to excel in the SMA.

Redefining Smart

Most of us have been taught to define what it means to be smart and what it takes to succeed based on Industrial Revolution-era thinking that doesn't account for the latest science of higher-level human thinking and relating. We're in a new era in which technology will, in many more cases, be smarter than us, and that will affect whether we'll work, how we'll work and what work we'll do. Clinging to an outdated mentality will stifle our abilities to learn and adapt in the midst of rapid technological advancement, the dynamic global economy and ever-increasing competition for the decreasing number of jobs available for humans.

Our mental models affect how we perceive the world and, in some cases, can actually distort or misrepresent reality. Our models may also greatly differ from other people's models and other people's views of reality. Jack Mezirow, an adult learning expert, explained that "we have a strong tendency to reject ideas that fail to fit our preconception," but he also explained that we can "transform our frames of reference (mental models) through critical reflection on the assumptions upon which our interpretations, beliefs and habits of mind, or points of view, are based."

To change our mental model for the SMA, we first need to accept a quality-based definition of being smart -- or NewSmart -- which I define as excelling at the highest level of thinking, learning and emotional engagement with others that one is capable of doing. NewSmart is a measure not of what you know or how much you know but of:
  • the quality of your thinking, listening, collaborating and learning.
  • how good you are at not knowing and decoupling your beliefs (not values) from your ego.
  • how good you are at being open to continually stress-testing your beliefs about how the world works.
  • how good you are at trying out new ideas and ways of accomplishing your objectives, and learning from those experiments.

Humility: The Gateway to Human Excellence in the SMA
When you think of humility, what immediately springs to mind? Mother Teresa serving the poor and sick? Jesus washing the feet of his disciples? The Dalai Lama meditating? That's pretty typical. Certainly, humility, as a concept, has strong religious overtones. When we think of humility, most of us consider people who are very spiritual or devout or who have altruistically dedicated their entire lives to others. Most of us don't immediately think of hedge fund managers or the heads of global corporations.

Humility is rarely associated with intellectual aptitude or professional success in Western societies, especially in the United States. That's because synonyms for humility in common Western parlance often include lowliness, meekness and submissiveness -- characteristics that would seem to be the antithesis of achievement and success.

My definition of humility and my belief in its power as a mindset, however, come not from these connotations but from my study of it as a philosophical, intellectual virtue and psychological construct. I define humility as a mindset about oneself that is open-minded, self-accurate and not all about "me," and that enables one to embrace the world as it is, in the pursuit of human excellence.

That doesn't mean thinking less of yourself, but it does mean thinking about yourself less -- how you look, what other people are thinking or saying about you, how you're coming across, how you're being judged. The Foundation for Critical Thinking views this kind of mindset as an intellectual strength and a cornerstone of critical thinking. It explains that "intellectual humility does not imply spinelessness or submissiveness. It implies the lack of intellectual pretentiousness, boastfulness or conceit, combined with insight into the logical foundations, or lack of such foundations, of one's beliefs."

Ultimately what's needed to thrive in the coming SMA is this kind of openness to perceiving and processing the world more as it is and not merely as we believe or would like it to be. That is what's at the heart of my definition of humility. In the SMA, we will all have to acknowledge the need to spend less time focused on "big me" and instead balance our competitive spirit with a collaborative spirit, because critical thinking, innovative thinking and high emotional engagement are all team sports -- "big us."

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