How Real Leaders Melt The Iceberg of Ignorance With Humility
Similar images of the ‘Iceberg of Ignorance‘ have been around for decades. Today they are spreading like wildfire on social media, rapidly becoming one of the most shared legends of popular management culture.
It all originated (so it is said) in 1989 when consultant Sidney Yoshida produced his study called ‘The Iceberg of Ignorance'. (Unfortunately, we couldn’t get our hands on the original.) Allegedly, Yoshida revealed what he saw in the work and leadership habits of Japanese car manufacturer, Calsonic.
The tip of the iceberg
He uncovered a poor distribution of power and information within the organization’s hierarchy. Specifically, knowledge of front-line problems went up in smoke the higher he climbed the management chain. Indeed, he found that company leadership was hardly aware of any of the real problems the organization faced. They were, as he put it, only aware of the tip of the iceberg.
Yoshida further found that, even though 100% of front-line problems were known to the front-line employees, only 74% were known to team leaders, 9% to middle management and just 4% to top management!
Whether Yoshida’s numbers are accurate, and even if those numbers are still relevant in today, is up for debate. On the one hand, academics might argue the legend is too ‘bad’ to be true or, perhaps, only partly based on facts. (We think the latter.) On the other hand, as long as there is inexplicable behaviour in the workplace, there will be room for this kind of legend in popular management culture.
Anyway, we do not really care if Yoshida’s numbers are completely accurate or not. We would argue that’s not so relevant. What is relevant is to discover and reflect on the meaningful message they convey.
The problem of the iceberg
For that reason the ‘Iceberg of Ignorance‘ is a damn good story. It offers a powerful but painful insight into the miserable state of the modern workplace. In good times, the Iceberg of Ignorance may not lead to notable problems. But in bad times, leaders really need urgent and accurate information from the front-line to survive.
This is when roles are suddenly reversed. Leaders with low status and trust can end up feeling like Julius Caesar on the Ides of March. They will be left alone to solve their own problems.
Obviously, it is impossible for even the most heroic leadership team to solve all the problems of the organization, especially if they are only aware of the ‘tip of the iceberg. So, what can business leaders do to address this problem? And what can they learn from the academics and the most inspiring leaders around?
Humility is the key to melting the iceberg
Luckily for leaders, there is a very effective habit to cultivate that solves this issue – showing humility. As common sense as it sounds, frequently engaging with the front-line seems to be an underused key to success. For leaders at all levels, this kind of humility will help break the ice before their Titanic hits an iceberg.
Leaders who show humility by mixing with the front-line gain more status and influence than their peers who prefer to stay in their offices. Moreover, leaders can actively enhance their status by engaging in work 'below their pay grade'. Here are two inspiring examples of humble, and exceptional, leadership. We can learn from these.
The chef-owner who sweeps the street
Harvard Business School Professor Francesca Gino (author of Rebel Talent) recently talked about a research project in which she surveyed 700+ employees about bosses and their behaviour. She found managers with the least levels of respect are also those known for shutting themselves in their offices.
More importantly, she also found that “the most respected leaders are those most willing to get their hands dirty”. Francesca often talks about the work and leadership habits of Massimo Bottura, the chef-owner of Italian based, three-Michelin-star restaurant, Osteria Francescana.
Osteria Francescana is ranked as one of the best restaurants in the world. But its chef-owner doesn’t shy away from sweeping the street in front of the restaurant—every single morning. Moreover, he helps his staff to unload delivery trucks and prepare staff meals. He even finds time to play soccer with the staff. “When Bottura grabs a broom each morning, he shows his staff that there is no work that’s beneath him – and that gains their respect.”
The restaurant-owner who pours water
At Corporate Rebels we have a similar story. It’s about the habits of Bucket List pioneer Ari Weinzweig, co-founder of Zingerman’s, an Ann Arbor, Michigan-based community of food businesses. The Zingerman’s Community of Businesses is a long time favorite among food writers and is one of the coolest businesses in America according to Inc. magazine.
Despite the fact that Ari leads a multi-million dollar enterprise, he still pours water to guests, every single evening. You might think he has a lot more important things to do, but you should never tell him that. Because he knows that being actively engaged (as owner) is best for the business.
It’s when employees see Ari walking around with a pitcher offering water to clients they know their own jobs are equally important. It’s about doing the small things to ensure the business runs smoothly, no matter what position or role you hold.
Humility as the hidden ingredient
There is more from the academics. Wharton Professor Adam Grant (author of Originals) studies how to make work not suck, and he talks about humility as the secret ingredient. “Humility is having the self-awareness to know what you’re good at and what you’re not good at. Studies show that when you have humility in your team, people are more likely to play to their strengths.”
Grant advocates that, instead of going for the spotlight, leaders should take on roles that help their teams win. In that sense humility isn’t about having a low opinion of your self, it’s about being grounded. “Humility doesn’t require you to only do the grunt work. It’s about realizing you’re not above doing whatever the team needs.”
London Business School Professor Dan Cable (author of Alive at Work) would agree on that and advocates for humble leaders that help employees to feel purposeful, motivated, and energized so they can bring their best selves to work. These leaders have "the humility, courage and insight to admit that they can benefit from the expertise of others who have less power than them."
Moreover, humble leaders "increase the ownership, autonomy, and responsibility of followers - to encourage them to think for themselves and try out their own ideas." Because what it simply comes down is this: "employees who do the actual work of your organization often know better than you how to do a great job."
We could only agree. Are you inspired to go this way? Then let’s be clear: creating a culture of humility is not just about recruiting a bunch of humble people. It’s about making humility a core part of all your practices, roles and processes!