Until the Egg is Laid
June 30, 2020 by Sheldon Loar
If you consider those whom you look up to and admire; those who inspire you and have your confidence; those whom you would willingly follow in almost any circumstance, you will often find a common characteristic: Humility. In my experience, these unpretentious, self-effacing, ‘give others the credit’ kind of people are actually very powerful—in a counterintuitive way. As opposed to the more stereotypical, brash, cocky, “I’m-the-man” types who tend to talk big but often fall short of delivering on the full measure of their self-aggrandizement.
Let us look at an example from the American Civil War. On January 26, 1863, American President, Abraham Lincoln appointed Joseph Hooker to command the Army of the Potomac after the Union defeat at Fredericksburg. Hooker succeeded General Ambrose Burnside, following a long string of generals who had been largely unsuccessful in their campaigns against the brilliant Rebel strategist, General Robert E. Lee.
Hooker appeared to be a great choice. He had solid pre-Civil War experience serving in the Seminole War and the Mexican-American War. He had distinguished himself during the battles at Williamsburg, Fredericksburg, and Antietam. He tried to build morale among his men by providing better food and medical care. And he was famously confident. All signs of good leadership capability.
However, an interesting insight was shared by the Commander-in-Chief just two months after his appointment. When “Lincoln visited the Army of the Potomac, …. [he] was pleased by what he saw, and agreed with Hooker’s proud description of it as ‘the finest army on the planet.’ Lincoln was less enthusiastic about the general’s cockiness. The question, said Hooker, was not whether he would take Richmond, but when. ‘The hen is the wisest of all the animal creation,’ Lincoln remarked pointedly, ‘because she never cackles until the egg is laid.’”¹
A short five months later, following the surprising defeat at Chancellorsville, Hooker resigned.
Am I suggesting that arrogance was responsible for his downfall? Well, yes, at least in part. Although I am no historian, others who are, have pointed out that Hooker was self-promoting and tended to be critical of his commanders.² It has been my observation that arrogance, like this, can lead to overconfidence, which can contribute to poor decision making. It can encourage one to discount the perspective and experience of others. And it can give a false sense of security, leading one to disregard the capabilities of competitors and the reality of market conditions.
Humility on the other hand, recognizes the contribution of others. It encourages innovative ideas, which in turn allows for better decision making. Humility buys loyalty and respect from others. Humility combined with courage and decisiveness allow others to have confidence in one’s ability to lead.
But just because someone is humble does not mean they will not experience defeat! Failure is a fact of life and one of its best teachers. Humility allows one to fail and learn from the experience by taking ownership of it rather than blaming others for what happened. It shows tremendous character when credit is shared for successes and responsibility is accepted by the leader for the failures that occur.
Cackling: Is there ever a time or place where we should cackle (boast)? I had a colleague who refused to share what he was doing and what he was working on with his manager, stating that the results of his work would be proof enough. Interestingly, he was let go a few years later. I asked his boss (who also happened to be my boss) why he was fired. He said, “We could never figure out what was going on. We tried to get a feel for it, but he refused to share. We cannot always see the entire picture with just the numbers as proof.” Point: there is nothing wrong with cackling—especially when the egg has been laid—but doing so in a humble way, seeking to elevate the contribution of others in the process is the mark of a great leader. After all, their success is your success.
1 McPherson, J. M. (1988). Battle Cry of Freedom, 585-586 (emphasis added)
2 Example: Connelly, D.B. (2006). John M. Schofield and the Politics of Generalship, 101