Intellectual Humility

People with a vast knowledge of subject matters must be willing to admit at times that they’re not sure.

When the Allied forces were planning an invasion during World War II, leaders from different countries were all weighing in on the best plan to enact. Winston Churchill had his plan, which was vastly different than the Soviets’, the Americans’, and even several of his British Generals. Churchill was extremely cautious in part because of the heavy losses suffered during the North Africa and Italian campaigns. 

In January 1944, Churchill wrote to Russian Czar Joseph Stalin, declaring everything was going “full blast for ‘Overlord,’” the name given to the Normandy Invasion. As late as April, Churchill continued to express reservations, telling one advisor, “This battle has been forced upon us by the Russians and the United States military authorities.” However, by May, just before the planned invasion, he told the dominion of prime ministers of the Commonwealth that he favored Operation Overlord, although privately, he preferred another approach. 

What Churchill was doing during this pivotal moment and a world crisis was admitting he might not be correct. He was strong-minded but also open-minded and practiced what’s often referred to as “Intellectual Humility.” Essentially, people with a vast knowledge of subject matters must be willing to admit at times that they’re not sure, that the other person might actually be right, or even, “I’m wrong.”

When former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia would hear a case, everyone who shared a seat with him on the bench knew he was strong-minded in his conservative opinions. Scalia relied on this interpretation of the Constitution’s text and applied those words to present events. He believed the United States Constitution, written by the Founding Fathers, was an endearing document, not a living one. After his decisions, he would write a compelling, beautiful narrative to support his beliefs. As is often the case involving the Supreme Court, the rulings tend to favor party lines.  However, there are times when Scalia and other justices ignored their conservative or liberal views and found their interpretation of the text the same. When Scalia changed his mind, he would say: “Wisdom came later.” 

Now, you won’t find two stronger-minded, highly intelligent people in their opinions than Winston Churchill and Antonin Scalia. Yet, both were willing to admit that “Wisdom came later.” Charles Darwin had a theory about why highly intelligent people are more inclined to admit error: “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge. Being a true expert involves not only knowing stuff about the world but also knowing the limits of your knowledge and expertise.” 

During any challenging time as a leader, we all know people with excellent and diverse knowledge are rare. Therefore, when we have doubts about our experience on a particular subject, admitting we don’t know is not weakness — it shows tremendous strength. Showing some doubt is way more endearing than absolute certainty. 

And there are no guarantees during any challenging times. Just ask Churchill or Scalia. 

P.S. If you are in search of a book recommendation, our team at The Daily Coach highly recommends Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity by Kim Scott. The idea is simple: You don't have to choose between being a pushover and a jerk. This book is about caring personally and challenging directly, about soliciting criticism to improve your leadership and also providing guidance that helps others grow. It focuses on praise but doesn't shy away from criticism - to help you love your work and the people you work with. Radical Candor has been embraced around the world by leaders of every stripe at companies of all sizes. Now a cultural touchstone, the concept has come to be applied to a wide range of human relationships.

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