The campaign paradox: Strong leaders need humility

We like humble people.

Humility is a quality we value in our romantic partners, our friends, our bosses and our religious leaders.

And a wealth of new research has found that effective leadership is strongly related to qualities of humility such as low self-focus, the ability to acknowledge personal mistakes and limitations and the capacity to appreciate the strengths of others.

None of this sound familiar this presidential election season?

Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has called tens of millions of Americans supporting her opponent “deplorables.”

And yet she is generally considered the candidate with far lower levels of narcissism, personal grandiosity and paranoia.

GOP nominee Donald Trump stands apart in modern presidential politics in breaking or ignoring long-accepted standards of civility.

Trump has launched populist attacks on religious and ethnic minorities, cast doubt on the integrity of the election and regularly promised retribution to anyone who disagrees with him.

And that was before he tweeted “the shackles have been taken off me.”

How did we get to this point?

The political system itself is part of the reason, say three leading interdisciplinary scholars and researchers in the science of humility.

“There is this almost schizophrenia we’re requiring from a presidential leader,” said Brad Owens, associate professor of business ethics at Brigham Young University.

“To be extremely self-promoting and self-confident in the process of an election, and then you have to build a team and be able to work across the aisle when you are actually doing the job,” he added.

But a large part of the blame falls on us.

What we demand from candidates

Reason tells us the ideal president would want all relevant information to make the best possible decision, being open to new approaches that get the most effective results.

Yet candidates run the risk of being labeled as weak or a flip-flopper is they revise their opinions based on new information.

“It seems implicitly there’s still a common notion that humility is a sign of weakness, especially for what we’re looking for in leaders. It seems to me that the populous wants somebody who knows what he or she stands for, can articulate that and can defend it all the way,” Biola University psychology professor Peter Hill said.

“I think what’s driving so much in the political sphere, especially now,” he said, “is just a very strong pragmatism. What’s viewed as positive is that you voice your opinion loudly by drowning out the opposition. Unfortunately, it’s probably not that helpful.”

No one person can have a complete grasp of all the complex issues facing a president, noted Mark Leary, a professor of psychology and neuroscience and director of the Interdisciplinary Behavioral Research Center at Duke University.

Yet, Leary said, “The populous is very intolerant of people who don’t seem to have the answer to everything. And that really bothers me. I’d love to see a candidate, 20 percent of the time, when asked a question about how they would handle something, say, ‘You know, I haven’t thought deeply about it, and I’d love to consult a lot of experts and really examine the evidence.’

“But they’d be shot down for doing that, so we don’t allow the candidate to be intellectually humble and open,” Leary continued. “They have to make really strong pronouncements, and put themselves into it 100 percent in the presence of complete ignorance about what they’re talking about.”

What we need in a president

In the case of this election, the scholars said, there has been the confluence of a leader with an unrestrained ego, Trump, and a group of voters who see themselves as disenfranchised from the current political system.

Having someone who is their guy may not just reduce their objections to a lack of humility.

“If the leader is representing us, then the more forceful, arrogant and self-certain the leader is, we may have the perception that that leader is going to work for us,” Leary said.

Damaging evidence against their candidate then is less likely to be evaluated objectively, but reinterpreted as the candidate is “not afraid of sticking their neck out and they are willing to take flak for the group.”

Yet the consequences of narcissism unrestrained by humility can be severe, research shows.

Consider these key areas:

Pathological narcissism is bad for the nation’s business: “It’s impossible for a president to really take care of all the responsibilities under their domain,” Owens said. “So I think great presidents are probably those that are able to gather great people around them, a team with diffuse expertise that allows him to receive the counsel and direction that he or she needs.”

And still one other quality is needed.

“A non-defensiveness when they bring up their rival opinion, or differing opinion,” said Hill, past president of Division 36 (Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality) of the American Psychological Association. “So it’s not only that they comprise that diversity, but that they’re willing to listen.”

Humility can guard against abuse of power: Studies going back to the work of the renowned psychologist David Kipnis as early as 1972 have found evidence that as people are given power, they begin to overvalue and overestimate their own worth and ability and intelligence and undervalue that of others, Owens noted.

“Generally speaking, when someone has a tendency or a penchant to acknowledge and own their limitations, that may be an important foil for the abuse of power,” Owens said.

“The president of the United States is arguably the most powerful position in the entire world so it just makes it all the more important to understand that the potential to abuse that power may be prevented by the acknowledgement and owning of one’s limitations and hopefully putting the brakes on brash decision making in the use of that power.”

Humility unites, hate speech divides: Humility is associated with empathy, understanding and compassion; pathological narcissism is related to cynicism, materialism, fear and intolerance.

Research indicates there may be a high price to be paid in social distrust and the potential for violence when a candidate:

• Associates Latino immigrants with racists and murderers.
• Proposes a ban on Muslims entering the country,
• Suggests his opponent should be jailed or worse.
• Questions the integrity of any election of which he is not the winner.

Even if Trump were to be elected, his alienation of wide swaths of the American public, including his attacks on leaders within his own party, will make it difficult for him to govern, humility scholars note.

“It’s going to be hard for him to build, or rebuild, some of those relationships and the trust he’s going to need to actually get things done,” Owens said. “He’s pursuing his goals with vigor, but he is really liquidating a lot of relational resources in the process and it’s going to be maybe like a house of cards that is going to come crashing down if he gets in that oval office.”

All of us can be more humble

So what can be done to promote more civil campaigns in the future?

For starters, researchers suggest, each of us can try to be a little more humble, acknowledging our own weaknesses and biases, appreciating the perspectives, strengths and contributions of others and being open to new ideas serving the greater good.

“If you go fundamentally to the principles of what we all hope to accomplish, there’s a lot of similarity.” Owens said.

“Now we may differ on the methods of accomplishing those basic aims. But I think at its roots if we could get to that fundamental level and acknowledge that both sides hold a lot of moral ideals that undergird a lot of their arguments … humility might help us to operate and function on that level.”

This is a dark and disturbing period in American politics, many observers have noted.

Neither candidate is trusted by many Americans. Some 6 in 10 likely voters and registered voters reported unfavorable impressions of Clinton and Trump, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll in late October.

But there is hope in how the nation, in times of social trauma such as the attacks of 9-11, has rallied together with the idea that “first and foremost we’re Americans and citizens of the world,” Hill said.

A time like this, he said, may help us pause, take a step back and focus on “those commonalities that we’re all fundamentally in agreement about and stressing those not only in political dialogue, but throughout society.”

That also means debunking the stereotype of humble people as weak-willed, stoop shouldered individuals of low self-worth.

Several studies have shown humble people, unlike individuals constantly seeking attention or validation from others, possess a secure sense of self-worth.

That is what frees humble people from the need to impress or dominate others. It also allows them to be more effective leaders who are able to listen, be transparent about their limitations and appreciate the strengths and contributions of others as they navigate changing conditions in a complex world.

In the case of presidents, humility can enable them to put the nation’s interest above their own.

Do we want a strong president, one who can get the job done right?

Look for signs of humility.

Image by Krassotkin (Derivative work of Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore and Hillary Clinton by Gage Skidmore), via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0]

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