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 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!
Yoshida 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.
The ‘Iceberg of Ignorance‘ is a damn good story. It offers a powerful but painful insight into the miserable state of the modern workplace.
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 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.
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.
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.”
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!
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!
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While humility is a great way to act as a role model and energize others to take responsibility, I disagree it solves the iceberg of ignorance problem. Total transparency and full autonomy do. Only by letting teams access all the available information and decide on their tensions, the organization becomes both aware and agile.
It's certainly helping to show the way at an individual level but not enough at an organizational one. Autonomy and transparency have to be baked into the DNA, the rules and the actions of the organization. I beleive that just being a humble (or even a servant) leader doesn't go far enough.
Emanuale makes a good point. If the focus of the study was "front-line problems" then a simple application of ignorance by distance will apply. However I have worked with many organisations where ignorance of strategic imperatives and considerations increases as you go downward. The key isn't just for individuals to understand both content and context, but to be able to integrate both to find (and preferably iterate) new solutions with the full picture of both. The iceberg seems to infer that decisions are only made at the top so exposing the bottom to the top is the key to success. I find this more a reaction to a broken leadership structure than a move toward an integrated learning organisation that uses the full power of distributed cognition.
I am glad that Stuart has highlighted the singular perspective of the model. It is not enough for leaders to up their percentages, it is vital that everyone gets a better understanding of content and context. There is a need for more empathetic understanding, an appreciation that everyone has 100% view of their own problems at whichever point in the organisation. The value or severity of a problem is largely decided by the owner of the problem
I notice two things which hinder Stuart's "move toward an integrated learning organisation that uses the full power of distributed cognition"
1. We are still stuck with a hierarchical model of organisations. This is often dominant narrative of organisations - it is historical, traditional, and buttressed by all the organisational scaffolding of pay, process and people management. It creates or just accepts the idea that this is the reality.
2. Culturally, and more specifically in the West, we are hardwired to a singular point of view. See Tricia Wang's great talk at TheConference, Malmo in 2016 https://2016.theconference.se/#tricia-wang, which explored the historical and artistic roots of why we see things from a singular and hierarchical perspective.
I think that the “iceberg” metaphor is really helpful. It also represents the basis from which the whole “iceberg” floats. The lower part of the business creates the foundation of the business, providing the top leaders to have the possibility of the clear viewpoint, the vision of the business, so to speak. How they use that viewpoint and vision really is up to them, hence your great article. This was an inciteful article, which I have passed on to my administration. Thank you
The problem is both ways, issues rising up, but also decisions going down and are being ignored ...
If everyone would just focus on what they are good in and just try to make the company a better place. That also means fear needs to be addressed. People/even executives act out of fear (or greed or 'i dont know what i dont know')...
All well and nice, but I personally know a few managers/owners who do the work alongside their staff, and get left behind. Perhaps it's about the perception among their higher-up peers of low value by "joining the peasants" or something more insidious. More specifically referring to hands-on owners, perhaps they look humble with their sweeping, picking up stock etc, but in reality they should be spending 75-80% of their itme planning and working on the 5-10 year outlook for the business.
In 2005, Vineet Nayar became the leader of Indian IT and consulting company HCL Technologies. As a result, 25,000 people looked up to him and waited for his direction. But there was a problem. "I knew in my heart that we as leaders had done nothing to win the trust of our employees."