The fourth installment of the Leadership Academy’s Saturday Seminar featured a vibrant and informative talk by Dr. Matthew Sowcik. Students of Illinois Tech poured into the MTCC Ballroom on March 9 to hear him. Sowcik delivered a brilliant seminar which centrally focused on the “H-factor”— humility, and its key role in leadership effectiveness. Sowcik is an Assistant Professor of Leadership Education at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
Sowcik began his seminar with an amusing story about toilet training his sons. His easy success with his older son gave him a great deal of confidence in his parenting abilities. However, when his second son presented more of a challenge, he realized that he had actually been overconfident in his skills, which skewed his perspective. Proper perspectives are vital to any form of leadership. Every situation requires a different approach and without a proper foundation, it is hard to succeed. This concept suggests that our perceptions lead to our thoughts, which then lead to actions. In turn, these actions will lead to our habits and behaviors which subsequently lead to our perception, leadership, and view in the eyes of others. This holistic view connects how our thoughts lead to our actions, and ultimately our perception, and allows us to keep things in the proper perspective without falling victim to the overconfidence that Sowcik had experienced with his sons.
Throughout the presentation, Sowcik discussed many relevant examples; in a TED Talk by Tali Sharot (2011) which discusses the pros and cons of overconfidence. High confidence and optimism can be beneficial to an individual in certain circumstances, as it leads to less depression and anxiety with their affairs— like a self-fulfilling prophecy. However there are negatives that accompany these positives, as shown in a scene from the 2015 drama Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs is shown having an argument with Apple co-founder, Steve Wozniak. Jobs slanders the efforts of the company during his absence while also refusing to give credit to lower-level employees, citing a product failure that almost caused the company to go out of business. The slandering of the team by the head of the team simply demoralizes the team. In addition, this overconfident style of leadership causes leaders to miss telling signs of concern, it promotes the “anything to get ahead” mindset rather than a growth mindset, and it impacts the development of not only the team, but also of the team leader. Sowcik mentioned that Steve Jobs was later quoted as saying that he was only able to improve his leadership style once he took the “Bad tasting medicine of humility”.
Following this powerful illustration of the overconfidence crisis, Sowcik showcased some of his own research on humility. He found that 65 percent of Americans surveyed believed that they were smarter than the average American, while 36 percent see themselves as more attractive than the average individual. Ironically, after rating themselves as smarter and more attractive, 47 percent still believed they are more humble than the average American. What this shows is that humans have a tendency to overestimate their capabilities in certain areas. To avoid this overestimation, Sowcik encouraged us to exercise humility, which he defined as a proper perspective of oneself, one’s relationship with others, and one’s place in a larger environment.
Following the break, Sowcik split students up into two groups. Group B was given logic puzzles, and Group A was given the answers to the puzzles. Group A had to guide their partner to the correct answer without utilizing vocabulary that would give the answer away. This task was a lot harder than originally conceived, and no individual was able to answer all the puzzles correctly or guide their partner to all the correct answers. At this stage, Sowcik emphasized the importance of communication in leadership, citing that it did not matter what group A members knew about a puzzle, but rather it only mattered about what group B members knew. The task for group A members was to try and assess what group B members knew and then base their clues off of that. This effectively took the emphasis away from group A, or those who were supposed to “lead”, and placed it on group B, those who were supposed to “follow.” The situation illustrates the importance of an ascribed leader taking a backseat to focus on supporting their follower to achieve a goal.
Following this, Sowcik then passed out photographs to each table in the room and asked individuals to do one of three things: develop a proper perspective either in yourself, in others or in the larger environment using the photos. Students were encouraged to share their ideas in front of the audience. Sowcik then connected this to the context of leadership. To develop a proper perspective of oneself, it is important to go easy on oneself while also taking the opportunity to deeply dive into one’s weaknesses and improve them. To develop a proper perspective of others, individuals must strive to understand others and practice meaningful, authentic engagement with them. To develop a proper perspective of the larger environment, Sowcik suggests finding a mentor and looking for the means to achieve an end in a given situation. This seminar was met with great feedback and Sowcik was very popularly received by the audience. People cited his humor, interactive presentation style, and energy as reasons for why his presentation was so memorable.