Posts Tagged ‘Humility’


Photo Credit:

Everything was going according to plan. I was putting the final touches on the latest revision of my clinical research paper when I caught something. It couldn’t be?! I had made a big mistake and substituted one bit of information for another, erroneously. All the subsequent analysis that my team and I had done was no longer applicable. It was a horrible, sinking feeling. I looked through the records to see how I had missed this error for so long. I put the pieces together, came up with a plan to fix it, and then had to write the humbling email to my team. I was direct. I explained my error, apologized for making it, and offered a plan to correct. And then I waited for their response . . .

Within minutes I heard back. The neurosurgeon leading our team simply thanked me for being honest, having integrity and for attention to detail. The rest of the team echoed those sentiments and they were repeated in subsequent messages. We were to present the data as is.

Truth matters. Even in a cultural setting in which the prevailing current of thought may favor what you can get away with or how skillfully you can bend the facts, the simple truth matters. My mistake, while real, was also interpreted as being attentive to detail when caught. The very thing we think could jeopardize our progress, can instead be a stepping stone. In a year and half, I will be making significant decisions about patients as I start residency. I will not always be right, but I can always be forthright. I owe my patients and colleagues that.

So if like me, you make a big mistake, here is what I have found works professionally (but I would argue makes sense for personal situations as well):

  1. Address the mistake in a timely manner
  2. Admit to your role in clear and active terms (not “an error was made” but “I made an error”)
  3. Have a plan to address it (even if a different plan is used; this shows initiative and further commitment to the project).
  4. Execute the fix quickly but thoroughly and circle back to your team.
  5. Reflect on how the error happened so as not to repeat it.

I feel for the medical personnel of Doctors Without Borders who had endure a bombing that killed 22 people this week in Afghanistan. The US government  said it was a mistake; DWB argue otherwise. What is the truth? We don’t know yet. But here is why developing an ethos of truth is so critical. One day, it’s a research paper, the next someone’s life is on the line. The seed of our decision making is planted long before we make the high stakes decisions. Will we be ready?

Daniel Coyle in his insightful article, How to Make Better Mistakes, refers to a study with an unusual result: Harvard Business professor, Amy Edmondson, studied a series of hospitals and found that the top hospitals reported TEN TIMES more errors than the bottom hospitals. In actuality, the hospitals were making about the same number of mistakes but top hospitals were proactive about reporting them. How did that help? That transparency created a safe zone and culture in these hospitals where employees still felt free to create and innovate without fear. The fearful approach of hiding errors because of consequences creates an atmosphere where the brain retreats and is paralyzed. Coyle puts it this way, “mistakes are not a verdict, but information to be sifted over.”

Errors should be avoided, of course, but if you have blown it, you are in good company. Of course, there will always be those who try and capitalize on our errors, but the principle is still worth it, even with temporary difficult consequences. Most of the time, though, people respond positively if given the chance. I still remember facing another actor on stage who had completely forgotten his next line (something every actor has faced) which was “What’s going on in town?” When I recognized his blank look I immediately said, unscripted, “You must be wondering what’s going on in town?” He lit up with recognition and said, also unscripted, “You read my mind!” Audience didn’t notice a thing and the play moved on smoothly. We had a good laugh about the whole thing backstage. Most of the time, people are gracious about our admitted errors because ultimately they recognize themselves.

Tom MboyaHow is he holding it together? I asked this question often while Tom Mboya was being grilled by a panel of veteran journalists on Meet the Press. I stumbled across an audio recording of this 56 year-old interview and I was riveted, not just by the content but by the poise of Mr. Mboya, a mere 28 years old at the time. Tom Mboya is widely regarded as one of Kenya’s greatest losses, an articulate and intelligent politician, gunned down by an assassin’s bullet at the age of 39. He was one of the fearless architects of Kenya’s independence, but what was there to learn from a 56 year old audio recording of this interview in the US? As it turns out, a lot.

One by one, each journalist asked Tom Mboya pointed questions essentially asking one question “Was Kenya really ready to govern itself.” Some of the questions were at best paternalistic and at worst condescending. Yet, Mr. Mboya remained calm and responded with thoughtful logic, well-crafted arguments and measured passion. It was such a refreshing change from the loud but often empty arguments that present themselves on many modern talk-shows where you wonder if anyone is really listening.

Mboya’s poise in this interview is a further example of something that has been on my mind lately, “bold humility.” I think of it as the sweet spot between confidence and deference. We have all witnessed (or perhaps even perpetrated) the ambitious and confident but ultimately obnoxious personality, with no awareness of personal limitations. On the other hand, we can be humble and deferential to the point that we neglect truth and justice for the sake of not “rocking the boat” or “keeping the peace.” And that is what struck me as so impressive in Mboya’s interview: Even though certain questions called into question the very intelligence of his people, he respectfully, yet boldly and without apology stated his goal, a free Kenya, now. I would submit (to use Mboya’s phrasing) that professional excellence arises from the mastery of the tension between humility and confidence or “bold humility”

In acting for example, the actor must be bold, walking onstage in front on thousands of people with thousands of lines in his head, memorized patterns of movement all over the stage and possibly lyrics, music and dance steps as well. All this is expected to be performed with precision, emotional availability and, where appropriate, flair and pomp. This can be done timidly, but to truly communicate the character, the actor has to risk everything, including public failure to truly shine. That takes boldness. And yet, the most accomplished actors know that the moment the performance becomes about them, the moment they lose the humility that puts the character first, the performance loses its truth and its power and rings false. And this line is so thin!

In medicine, patients expect a certain degree of confidence from their doctors. And yet, there are also those moments that require humility. Consider when the neurosurgeon has courageously taken on a difficult tumor surgery but pauses during the surgery and concludes it’s time to stop the operation. She is too close to a nerve, a vessel or language center. She has the humility to stop the operation there, but also had the boldness which allowed the patient a chance and perhaps bought more time to be around family. Again a thin line exists. How close is too close?

How does “bold humility” play into your choices?