Success often hinges on the ability to balance two competing, yet critical, instincts. And when it comes to being a successful CIO, leadership and humility exemplify two of these uneasy bedfellows.
By definition, leaders must make decisions, have a vision, set a course, and possess that indefinable quality of magnetism that inspires other to follow. Of course, the tactical decisions of how implement that strategic direction could, and probably should, be informed by those who will eventually carry them out. Great leaders such as George Washington gathered all the counsel they could, deliberated extensively (when possible) and then made the final decision. Washington, specifically, was known for taking his time when making a significant decision, then implementing it with an absolute determination to overcome every obstacle.
Interestingly, I do not believe humility is innate to the natural leader. Think about it — to lead, even considering the deliberative and consultative process — implies one must know, at least to know better than others. To know, one must have confidence they possess unique insights, especially when the path selected is not in line with the “collective” wisdom of those consulted. (Douglass MacArthur, certainly not known for his humility, regularly overruled his advisors.) Humility, on the other hand, is an admission of not knowing. To be humble implies there is more to learn. Handled clumsily, excessive humility could leave the troops questioning a commander they need to have confidence in.
I could not write a constructive column every week if I was humble about the opinions being offered. In fact, I must work to keep humility out of it. I find the worst editorials, the “cop outs,” are those in which the writer says, “Some think this, others think that — what do you think?” When I read something, I want the writer to take a position, to tell me what he or she thinks, and to say it with confidence, with no apologies. Of course, I am free to disagree. Now, lest you think I’m arrogant. I know that I don’t know a heck of a lot. The key is that I must think I know about what I write.
To be clear, humility is one of the key ingredients of an excellent leader, because only with it will one be open to the continuous learning that is essential in a rapidly changing environment like healthcare IT. But to adopt an excessively humble demeanor would be a mistake. Of course, your employees want to be engaged in the decision-making process so their perspectives are taken into account but, after that, I don’t think they care what you decide. They just want someone to make a decision.
Balancing confidence, leadership and action with humility, deliberativeness, and introspection is critical to your success as a leader. Delve too far into the former camp and you’ll be tagged an arrogant jerk; too far into the latter and you’ll be known as weak and ineffectual. As always, our first president — a truly remarkable man by any standards — provides a good role model.