Inside Perspective: Expertise tempered with humility

Dan Harper is vice president, corporate counsel and secretary for Océ North America, Inc.  He is also President Elect of the Chicago Chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel. The views expressed herein are the opinions of the author and do not reflect the position or viewpoint of Océ North America Inc., Canon Inc. or any of the Océ or Canon companies.

Last week, I was honored and privileged to hear one of America’s truly great thinkers speak to a group of lawyers about failure. Specifically, Malcolm Gladwell spoke at the Association of Corporate Counsel Chicago Chapter Annual In-House Celebration Dinner to a group of in-house counsel, law firm lawyers, and business executives about the failure of experts.

It is not possible for me to restate Gladwell’s remarks here. After having met the man and listening, enraptured by his words, I know better than to even try to recreate his thoughts in a way that approaches the beauty and eloquence of the original remarks. However, the message he left us is quite simple and understated but also timely and very important. No matter who we are, no matter how well educated, no matter how well informed, no matter our title or station in life and no matter how much we think we know, we can and do fail. In fact, we fail often. And when we do fail, the consequences can be catastrophic.

Gladwell described a continuum whereon lies those who are incompetent at one end and those who are experts on the other. Those who are incompetent by nature or circumstance make mistakes at least as frequently as those on the other end of the continuum. However, mistakes made by incompetent people are generally of little or no consequence. On the other hand, mistakes by “experts” may and often do have dire consequences. Gladwell wove together the tales of the failure of Bear Stearns in 2008, the battle of Chancellorsville 1863, and Goldman Sachs and the Crash of 1929 as examples of catastrophic events caused by experts who should have known better.

These events occurred as a result of very smart people, the best in the world in their respective fields, making horrible decisions. Their self perception of their abilities, self-awareness, knowledge of the facts and circumstances and their expertise, did not align with reality. According to Gladwell, these people failed because their view of themselves did not match their true capabilities, as smart and as knowledgeable as they were. What they lacked was, in a word, humility.

As confident as we must be in our role of legal advisor to our client, whether that client is the board of directors, the VP of sales, the purchasing manager or the IT technician, we must, as all experts must, temper our confidence with humility. We must recognize that we may not know all angles to the issue at hand; that others may know more than we do. To minimize the chance that we might one day be cited as the reason for the next big failure, ask questions, ask the opinions of others, bounce things off your colleagues, discuss your thoughts and ideas with fresh thinkers new to the issues at hand as well as the wise sages in the field, open your mind to the possibility that your standard answer or response may not be the right one. Really think about what could go wrong with your solution. We must continually “recalibrate” so that our perception of ourselves aligns as perfectly as possible with reality. Always be prepared, always approach every question as if it could lead to the next Bear Stearns failure because for many of us, our decision just might have that implication.

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One response to “Inside Perspective: Expertise tempered with humility

  1. Dan: Very insightful commentary especially for those of us who were not present at your celebrated event. I would particularly have liked to hear his perspective on such a recent situation as Bear Stearns.

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