How to role model humility in the smart machine age

by | Feb 26, 2018 | Blog | 2 comments

Gardening is a better metaphor than chess for effective leadership in today’s environment, according to General Stanley McChrystal, the retired four-star U.S. Army General.

In his book Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, General McChrystal explained that leaders need to give up their move-by-move controls and instead nurture the organization—its structure, processes, culture, and of course its people.

That advice is reverberating with me more than ever right now. Five college seniors are observing me as I serve as a mentor them while facilitating a book discussion.

 These seniors are members of my book circle for the College of Charleston business school class #401-01 Organizational Behavior & Change.

As background, the students chose which book they wanted to read — or which of the three volunteer mentors they wanted to work with if they responded more to our bios than the change management books we selected to read.

The role of the mentors is threefold: 1) facilitate a discussion about the book over four in-class meetings; 2) provide context about the book for the work world; and 3) evaluate the students’ group presentations about an organizational change from the perspective of their book after we finish reading.

The book I chose is Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age by Edward Hess and Katherine Ludwig.

According to the authors, the book is a call for action for anyone 17 or older. Their point is that we need to prepare for massive changes as the adoption of smart machines accelerates.

 Because the students in my group are 20 to 22 years old, they’re all better positioned for our brave new machine future than I am.

 Surprisingly to me, they’re expressing some concerns about being able to adapt quickly to the changes heading our way. They’re thinking maybe their future children will be the first generation who will be well equipped for this new age since they won’t have to unlearn what’s been ingrained into the students. For instance, they told me the school environment instills in them the need to know and remember as much as possible.

Yet, one of the “new smart” behaviors is to be comfortable with not knowing. With so much changing, it’s better to seek out knowledge and work with others. We need to be constant learners.

From my perspective, it’s fascinating to observe the students as they listen, relate and collaborate with each other and me.

By the way, these are the top four Smart Machine Age (SMA) skills Hess and Ludwig have identified. They refer to them as: 1) critical thinking, 2) innovative thinking, 3) creativity, and 4) high emotional engagement with others that fosters relationship building and collaboration.

In addition to these four skills, the authors maintain that individuals will need humility to continue to be relevant and productive in the machine age.

To the authors, humility means adopting “a mindset about oneself that is open-minded, self-accurate, and ‘not at all about me,’ and that enables one to embrace the world as it ‘is’ in the pursuit of human excellence.”

In other words, by practicing humility, you will need to defy your fears and your natural inclination to defend your ego. You also will need to be more open-minded, stress-test your existing beliefs and assumptions, and take generous actions to help others think at higher levels to collaborate.

For me to successfully role model the book’s key points for these students, I’ve got to show them that I’m not the expert in the circle.

Instead, I have to act like I’m one of them even though I’ve been gardening (and leading) longer than these students have been alive.  (In fact, I’ve been ordering books from since 1997 when these students were probably wearing diapers!)

That means asking questions and continuing to learn to remain relevant.

Any suggestions for me on what else to do?


  1. Maureen

    Liz I found this an interesting approach to learning/mentoring — also interesting that these young students are expressing concern about their ability to embrace/cope with rapid change. Thank you.

  2. Liz Guthridge

    Thanks, Maureen. I too have been surprised by the students’ reactions. However, we live in volatile times. As for this learning/mentoring approach, I love it! It’s a great opportunity for me to read a new change book and then discuss it with business student who often have a different perspective from mine. Great deep learning!

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