The Power of Humility

[This is part of an occasional series about the characteristics of intercultural leaders.]

HumilityHaving spent ten years as a U.S. American living and working in China, I’ve been lucky enough to have had many, many chances to reframe intercultural challenges by using humility. Here’s one example from my most recent role, as American Co-Director of the Hopkins–Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies.

Our staff at the Center consisted of both Americans and Chinese. Mostly the staff functioned as one integrated unit, but I also had a special set of relationships with my American staff. At one point I decided to hand a project over to one of them: she was extremely bright and capable, and I knew she’d do a great job. As the weeks passed, I began to get negative feedback from my Chinese colleagues about the arrangement. At first I dug in my heels: how dare “they” interfere with “my” staff? Slowly, though, I began to identify my assumptions: the right way to do things is to empower capable staff to take on projects and to run with them. What I hadn’t recognized at first was (a) that these were my assumptions, and (b) that these assumptions are deeply and thoroughly American, and aren’t appropriate for a Chinese work environment, which tends to be far more interdependent and hierarchical. (One of the main complaints I’d received was that it wasn’t “appropriate” for someone of this staff member’s low position in the organization to take on so much responsibility).

For a while I clung to the belief that the “American way” is still better, and that I was sacrificing something by “tolerating” the “Chinese way.” Soon, though, it became clear to me that all in all, inside of the larger cultural and organizational environment, the more interdependent and hierarchical approach was actually a lot more appropriate — and, crucially, more effective.

Leaders face all manner of obstacles in culturally complex environments. Our home cultures provide us with many resources for overcoming obstacles — including a sense of self, which is shaped by the values of our home culture.

The problem is that when we encounter cultures with different values, our sense of self — our ego — can feel threatened. And when we feel threatened, we literally can’t think straight: our higher brain functions are inhibited by the activation of the “fight or flight” response. And if we can’t think straight, how can we lead effectively?

At times like this humility can be the leader’s best friend. It’s one thing to feel like it’s “us” against “them,” and that if “they” win, something bad will happen to “us.” It’s quite another thing to see our own world view as just one of the world’s countless ways of thinking and doing. Humility reminds us that the world is a large and complex place — a rich place — and “my” way is just one way. The “strange” and “maddening” habits of “others” that are unfamiliar are transformed into a smorgasbord of options for solving problems. Problems might even cease to be problems in the eyes of the intercultural leader: they are, instead, opportunities to learn, and to expand our repertoire of ways of seeing and responding to the world.

In the story I shared above, it took a good dose of humility to get there, but I got there, and became a better leader for it.

In our most difficult intercultural moments, when the “other” culture seems most bizarre and just plain wrong, our egos will try their hardest to inflate themselves. Our lives at International House offer us so many opportunities, each and every day, to examine our most firmly held views, and how these might be distancing us from others. Intercultural leaders will be ready to meet the challenge: to rise above the ego’s distractions and keep everyone moving forward toward common goals.


About Jason D. Patent

Jason is the inaugural director of the Center for Intercultural Leadership at International House Berkeley. His career spans the education, business, and non-profit sectors. He has spent over ten years living and working in China and is passionate about helping China and the U.S. to understand each other better. Jason holds a Ph.D. in linguistics from UC Berkeley.
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