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The Leader Who Thrives: Intellectual Humility


I founded verolead™ having the vision to support leaders. The customised application of the verolead™ framework is a safe space for a leader to reflect, to question and to discover their humanity which bolster them in times of crises. Acknowledging their motivations, needs, beliefs and approaches when leading or living life are fundamental. It is in this context that we explore intellectual humility.

A couple of weeks ago I talked with a respected coach and successful former HR executive about what is necessary for extraordinarily impactful leadership. During that conversation, she inserted intellectual humility into a list of four called out in verolead™.  Although intellectual humility is not new, it did not readily come to my mind. I immediately became curious of its meaning and how it might mesh with my vision.


Wikipedia describes intellectual humility as “an intellectual virtue, along with other perceived virtues such as open-mindedness, intellectual courage and integrity, and in contrast to proposed intellectual vices, such as pride and arrogance.” While the trait is recognisable in someone’s responses during disagreements, there are other times as well. Some examples are disregarding differing perspectives, unwillingness to change opinions or decisions when evidence suggests otherwise, or an inability to acknowledge mistakes or the absence of skill or knowledge. Let us consider what might happen in a case of disagreement.

When there is a disagreement among viewpoints, the key question is often ‘what is true?’ or ‘what is right or moral, etc.?’ Perhaps, someone takes a particular position on a matter while another does not agree or takes issue with some aspect of the other’s logic.


In our scenario, the CEO of XYZ Company recently charged Paul, VP New Products, with launching a new widget by Q2 2022. Paul organizes a team that will ensure all the detailed R&D, commercial, manufacturing, supply chain, and human resources needs are planned, scheduled, and delivered on time. Some essential activities are already underway, other activities need more details only available at certain points of the project. The team is applying a particular Agile Project Management methodology called Scrum. (Want to know more? Check the following link.)

The first Sprint is finished, and the team is at its first review (or Retrospective). There are representatives from all the functions. No one present has any cross-functional experience – meaning no one has ever worked outside of their functional area. This includes Paul. The commercial players are perfectly aligned when the manufacturing partners vehemently object to the plans. Manufacturing says they do not have enough lead time for the equipment and process shakedown which are crucial to ramp up to the projected volumes. The discussion breaks down and everyone turns to Paul.


This is where Paul’s intellectual humility either kicks in or disappears. Does Paul comprehend his limited understanding of manufacturing? Will Paul allow himself to concede that perhaps there are members in the team who have a clearer and deeper understanding of how all the pieces fit together? Will he willingly defer to more ‘junior’ members to sort out the problem?

I believe that sustaining influence and harnessing other’s passion and commitment is deeply rooted in a keen awareness of our effect on those around us. It entails regular reflection, and an appreciation of the interplay of beliefs, emotions, values, and even physical conditions on the leadership experience. Intellectual humility is an element of self-awareness, i.e., it is knowing one’s intellectual limitations. This knowledge will affect the leader and everyone around them when conditions expose those limitations.


To begin, Paul believes that as an executive, he ought to have the answers and be the expert. He sees himself as the resolver of conflicts and an imposer of objectives and actions. He also is conscious of the Company’s culture which celebrates taking charge without regard to knowhow. Thus, Paul is uneasy about what others think of him. The dynamic mix of Paul’s beliefs, pride, and the company culture may predispose Paul to pretend he knows when he does not. The pressure may trigger fear, shame, and/or defensiveness that could block him from finding a good solution to the conflict.

Lucky for XYZ Company, Paul has intellectual humility. Possibly uncomfortable for him, he accepts his limits. Paul hands over the necessary coordination and analysis to the people with the right skills to quickly get plans back on track.


In conclusion, as true leaders who thrive, we benefit from regular checks of our intellectual humility, especially when we grasp that having it is not at a steady state.  Contributing factors do impact how we experience a particular situation, and we may respond in unexpected ways. Moreover, knowing where we are with this characteristic reminds us of the value of challenging what we may think are givens. Now may be a good time to ponder where you might be on a scale of 1-10 for intellectual humility. Here are questions I ask myself, taking the liberty to also share thoughts.

  1. In what situations might you show low intellectual humility?
    • Watch when assigned to or leading a project where you are not an expert in process or content. Decide how you wish to fill any gaps.
  2. What can you do to help yourself feel more confident in areas where you have limitations?
    • Build alliances with others having different strengths.
    • Decide if you wish to make the limitation a core capability or hand it off to someone more capable.
  3. What happens when someone challenges your propositions or ideas?
    • Be brave and own if often feeling defensive or threatened, then try to identify what are the triggers.
    • Ask a professional coach to work with you to uncover any gaps.
  4. In what ways can you engage team members to have good outcomes in situations like that of Paul?
    • Structure new teams based on team function principles. Identify the necessary competencies and roles.  Define the success profile for anyone filling a role.
    • Ensure there is a process for resolving conflicts or other complications.
    • Agree on guiding principles for the major pieces of a project.
    • Pre-think risks and mitigate for them in project plans.
    • Know what is important to stakeholders, perhaps speaking 1-2-1 before alignment meetings. Prepare the team by sharing the important insights often.

Take care and talk with you soon!

“Nothing frees you to excel like knowing what is true.  Truth frees passions and possibilities.”

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