Our ignorance is invisible to us, not to others.
We tend to overestimate how much we know — especially when it comes to something close to our reputation. We don’t make wrong decisions because of a lack of facts but of self-awareness.
Intellectual humility involves recognizing that our beliefs or opinions can be incorrect. Humility is a powerful leadership trait. Research shows that humble leaders inspire close teamwork, rapid learning, and high performance.
The importance of being wise
When we celebrate leaders only for their intellectual brilliance, we can also be promoting arrogance and overconfidence. Being smart is not enough. Leaders should not be blinded by their ego — they must be wise. As Socrates wrote, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”
Most leaders operate from a position of moral superiority — they think their opinions matter more than their subordinates’ ideas.
Naive realism is the feeling that our perception of the world is the truth. When something is so immediate and effortless to us, it just feels true.
As psychological researcher Chris Chabris explains, “I think we sometimes confuse effortlessness with accuracy.”
Wise leaders embrace their vulnerable side — they want to seek the truth, not to be right.
Most people believe their perception of the world is the right one.
What is intellectual humility?
The recognition that the things you believe in might, in fact, be wrong.
Unlike regular humility — which is characterized by honesty, sincerity, and selflessness — intellectual humility is about being obsessively curious. You challenge everything — even what you believe is right.
It’s not about lacking confidence or changing your mind all the time but about being determined to uncover your blind spots.
Intellectual honesty means leaving the door open, even if you are convinced you are right. You are receptive to new facts — you listen mindfully rather than trying to defend yourself. It requires to always seek for the truth regardless if it agrees with your own beliefs or not.
Conversely, intellectually arrogant leaders promote groupthink — they only pay attention to those who think like them. Diversity of thought is essential to find the best solutions. Arrogance is intellectual blindness.
Leaders who score higher on intellectual humility tests are more open to opposing views, pay more attention to evidence, and have a stronger self-awareness.
Most importantly, intellectually humble leaders are willing to admit they are wrong — they acknowledge their mistakes and learn from them.
The humble leader
Intellectual humility is one of the key traits that Google looks for in new hires. Wise leaders know that solving problems is a team effort — everyone brings something different to the table.
Research on inclusive leadership found that when people observe selfless behavior in their leaders, they were more likely to feel included in the teams.
Wise leaders don’t pretend to have all the answers — they lead with questions rather than with solutions. Their job is to get the best ideas from their teams. That requires putting their ego aside rather and letting go of the need to be always right.
Findings from one study revealed that humble CEOs create a positive influence around them: their teams are more collaborative, transparent, and eager to learn.
Three different forms of humility
- The first, the humility we feel around elders and dignitaries, is a basic part of social life.
- The second, the humility we feel in the presence of those who awe us with their achievements, is a regular part of professional life.
- The third form is the “here-and-now humility”— the most rarely observed in business and the most relevant for those who want to achieve big things.
The “here-and-now” challenges the usual power-play — knowledge matters more than formal authority.
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