In search of humility

If it weren’t so dangerous, it would have been silly yesterday when the President ordered peaceful protesters to be attacked with tear gas and rubber bullets so that he could walk across the street to an historic church and hold up a bible for a press picture. The cordons of police keeping the street clear were necessary to provide for the President’s safety and he was allowed to walk with no one near him and the press corps in tow to take pictures. The cordon of police was, of course, not allowed such luxury of space. They had to stand shoulder to shoulder to make the stroll work. The walk followed a short speech in which the President urged governors and mayors to use whatever force necessary to dominate city streets, saying that if they did not he would impose troops, threatening a military takeover of public spaces. In his speech he mentioned the second amendment to the constitution, but seemed to have forgotten the first amendment.

I understand that peaceful protests, where there is no looting, where no one is injured and where there is no shouting and shoving don’t make for dramatic news. It is, however, a tragedy that people are forgetting that these events are occurring all over the country, including one in our city on Saturday. I don’t understand the reasons behind the looting, but I do know that there are those who are stirring up violence. It was reported that bus loads of outside “accelerators” were brought into Minneapolis and from there transported to Fargo ND on Saturday and Sioux Falls on Sunday evening. If this is true, one has to wonder who is paying for the buses.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution prevents the government from making laws which regulate an establishment of religion, prohibit the free exercise of religion, or abridge the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, the right to peaceably assemble, or the right to petition the government for redress of grievances. It was adopted on December 15, 1791, as one of the ten amendments that constitute the Bill of Rights.

When George Floyd died while being arrested it sparked mass protests across the country. The frustration of many people over abuse of African American citizens at the hands of those who are supposed to be enforcing the law is not just a single incident. It is part of a pattern of abuse that has occurred in many locations. Protestors have taken to the streets to speak about police brutality and abuse of power as well as systemic racism. The use of military force to deny people “the right to peaceably assemble” and “the right to petition the government of redress of grievances” will not calm the anger and frustration that is driving people into the streets.

The philosopher Socrates argued that humility is the greatest of all virtues. He observed that the wisest people are the first to admit how little they really know. A number of studies conducted over the last decade have affirmed the truth of Socrates’ observation. According to recent research, people with greater humility are better learners, decision-makers and problem solvers. One study found that a person’s humility trumps IQ in predicting performance. Humility is especially important for leaders, Humility can improve strategic thinking and boos the performance of colleagues across an organization.

The world is coming face-to-face, although not easily, with the simple fact that top-down leadership is incredibly ineffective in the face of a pandemic. Autocratic, authoritarian leadership has been ineffective in the face of the spread of the virus. Humble, collaborative leaders have been visibly more effective. Compare the rates of infection, illness and death in New Zealand to those in our country if you want a dramatic comparison.

For several decades educators and public officials have touted self-esteem and self-confidence as essential qualities for leadership. Indeed self-confidence is an important quality, though, as Socrates argued, perhaps not the most important quality. To the extent that the self-esteem movement encouraged parents and teachers to provide unconditional positivity and optimism at the expense of any criticism or doubt, it has failed. Without the capacity to receive criticism and make changes and without the capacity to experience doubt, people do not develop the capacity to collaborate well with others.

Right now in our world we are facing problems that are too big for any individual to solve. We will solve the problems we face only through the power of working together. It doesn’t matter how bold or brash or confident a leader at the top is. If that person cannot work well with others, the problems will not be solved. An out of control virus is spreading across the world. It is not possible to prevent mass infection by taking care of just one segment of the population. We will come up with solutions, but the process demands information sharing across boundaries. It requires leadership that is willing to admit that mistakes have been made and changes are necessary. It requires listening to others.

Collaborative leadership is equally essential for our country to confront and overcome centuries of systematic racism that has left people feeling powerless to affect change. The officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck for more than seven minutes until he died, did not engage in his abusive behavior because of a lack of self-confidence. George Floyd’s death could have been avoided if he had simply asked for help from the three other officers who were standing by. The model of one officer restraining while others stand by is an example of the failure of collaboration.

Without humility, leaders become isolated and unable to govern, whether they serve in elected political office or at the top of an organization. They become dependent upon group think, where everyone in a group expresses the same opinion, afraid to stand out from the crowd. The surround themselves with sycophants who seek to promote their own advantage through imitation and false praise.

The solutions to the crises of this day will not come from the top down. Check out the grassroots. Listen humbly to the others around you. And, when things out in the streets become too crazy, turn off the TV and computer and spend some time with the ancient philosophers. There is wisdom yet to be revealed.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!