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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