On Discernment and Hubris

Discernment refers to opening up one’s eyes and one’s mind, considering a situation carefully, and reflecting to find insight more than express judgment. Of the many qualities of leaders, it is one of those we most watch for as we evaluate the skills and capabilities of a leader. Does this person show a capacity for insight, and use that insight as the basis for effective decisions and actions?

Of the many easy targets these days for lack of discernment is British Petroleum’s CEO, Tony Hayward. He’s been reviled as “the most hated — and most clueless — man in America,” and is regarded as a poster child for “What not to say when your company is ruining the world.” Surely, BP’s Board, unless they are “asleep at the switch,” according to Rosabeth Moss Kanter, must be considering a successor. He’s in a horrible spot, and he’s made the absolute worst of it, no doubt.

For that reason, it is easy to look at him and see someone out of touch with reality, and therefore, unlike ourselves. Now even the President has said Tony Hayward’s gaffs would have caused him to be fired, if he were part of the Administration. As I say, he’s an easy target. And we could ask, focusing on the wrong question, how someone like Tony Hayward ever got so high in terms of position and power. Didn’t anybody notice his insensitivity, his lack of self-knowledge, his weakness of character? If we make these judgments and hate him, then we hate him for one reason: he is altogether too much like ourselves.


Spring Maples

By the way, I’m only suggesting empathy, not sympathy for Mr. Hayward. His personal leadership path brought him to this point of painful exposure, and he does appear to have invited it into his life. That’s something he will probably spend the rest of his life trying to figure out. How could something like this have happened to him? In fact, he’s quoted as asking his executive colleagues, “What the hell did we do to deserve this?” Indeed, it is a good question for him to ask about himself. If he’s smart, he’ll ask this question in terms of his invitation, because surely what occurred is something he helped manifest, not only in terms of the spill itself and the abysmal failure of leadership in his company and industry, but also in terms of how his own behavior at the moment of truth invited the scorn of the world.

My little computer dictionary defines the word, hubris, as “excessive pride or self-confidence,” and further, echoing the word’s use in Greek tragedy, “excessive pride toward or defiance of the gods, leading to nemesis.” Nemesis, in turn, means “the inescapable agent of someone’s downfall.” In this case, a really bad problem with an oil well 5,000 feet down.

We all have the choice every day, discernment or hubris; hubris and the nemesis that it invites. We all want something better — the best — from our leaders. But we cannot accuse them unless we are willing to notice that the things that disappoint us most about them are also forces ready to be at work in ourselves. Me too, my friends, me too.

Which makes discernment pretty darned important; a lot more important than just a nice word for the good leaders we wish for somewhere out there in the world, a word waiting in a dictionary for somebody else to look up.

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