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The Best Lesson I Have Ever Learned From A Wise Man: The Significance of Intellectual Humility

By Miguel Martinez-Zavala — It was during the spring of 2011, and while I was waiting outside the Cameron School of Business office for one of my MBA classes to start, when I asked a classmate who was the person on the wheelchair getting into the Malloy Hall building. “He is Prof. Whitney,” he replied. “A tough-grader and former professor at Harvard Business School.” I was immediately intrigued. I have always enjoyed challenges, the tougher the better. There is something about working on what most people fear that brings out the best in me. It might be related to a sort of adrenaline rush when asked to do the “impossible” for others. I decided to enroll in his class before it closed.

After the 2011 summer break ended, I was sitting in his CAPSTONE course. I was full of anxiety waiting for him to arrive. I was imagining how difficult his class would be, and all the things I would need to do in order to become one of his best students. I kept thinking about all the things he would teach us, and which he previously thought at Harvard. I recall feeling sort of scared too. But, the thing I remember the most about our first direct encounter was his joyful greeting. He clearly loved being in front of all of us. He clearly loved teaching. I did my best in all of his assignments and got an “A” in his class.

It was a few months after my CAPSTONE class ended when I ran into his teaching assistant at the front of Welder Hall. I was looking for a part-time job opportunity, and she was getting a job promotion. Prof. Whitney needed someone to help him to manage his class. After applying and meeting with her as well as calling Prof. Whitney, I got the job. I was enormously excited since I have wanted to learn as much as I could from him from the moment I heard about his work. He was the former associate dean of Harvard Business School, one of the most sought-after business executives’ professors at Columbia Business School in the 1990’s, and a successful businessman as well. I knew the challenge would be great.

I started helping him during the fall of 2012 and I was right: it was a big challenge. Here I was working with one of the most knowledgeable men in management and strategy, a leading authority in his field. He was legally blind, but that was never a problem. He recalled every single detail on every single page of the business cases he was teaching. And the page number where he could find it. I immediately knew that I had to work harder than I had previously imagined, since he needed someone who could manage all of the business concepts he was teaching and more. I committed to not only study the cases that he was teaching as if I were one of his students, but to go back to all of my MBA courses and re-read my notes.

Prof. Whitney sometimes would talk about concepts and ideas that I have just recently heard, or ones I had never heard about at all. I even felt like having a “final test” in management during some meetings we had. Fortunately, the things I did not know he was happy to explain. He started to ignite my intellectual curiosity. At some point, I believe, he started to teach me, without letting me know, the things he had learned as a successful businessman and the ideas that influenced his thinking that he never mentioned in our classes. Now I know that is what great mentors do: teach without letting you know that you are being lectured.

Bad news came just before the end of the semester. He let me know that he would stop tutoring due to medical reasons. I was deeply saddened by the news, since I felt I was learning much more than anticipated and we have got along pretty well. However, fortunately, the bad news was dissipated a few days later when I received a call from him asking me to be his business research assistant. The task, he explained, consisted of looking for the information he would need in order to update one of his major publications, a book he published in the mid-1990s titled The Economics of Trust the first written work that linked profits directly to the concept of trust. I immediately accepted his proposal.

From the beginning, Prof. Whitney asked me to do two basic tasks for him: gather the business data and academic business articles he needed, and type his after thoughts about our readings since we read them together. He knew all of the business concepts and ideas presented in the information I brought to him, and many times he personally knew the authors. He was always keen to tell me fun anecdotes about the time they met or worked together. W. Edwards Deming, Michael Porter, among others, were some of the people he liked to talk about. Sometimes I found some information about a new company with a completely different business model that he had never heard of before, or about a new business management idea. He would immediately asked me to read it for him. I saw how much he relished learning something new. “What do you think about it, Miguel?” he used to ask me at the end of the reading. Then, he liked to discuss the consequences of those new lines of thought and to compare them with his personal experience. He liked to listen my point of view. In fact, he liked to listen everyone’s point of view to gain a new understanding of things. One time I found an author who criticized his work, and he deeply enjoyed his writing. Another time I found out that Prof. Whitney’s opposite point of view about the profit-center concept, which he originally expressed in The Economics of Trust in 1994, coined by Peter Drucker, was right. Dr. Drucker accepted his mistake in his book Managing in the Next Society published in 2002. This news made Prof. Whitney burst out laughing. I remember he said, “I was too soft in my opinion about the profit-center, I should had been less diplomatic.” I laughed too and said, “you definitely were [diplomatic].”

Day after day and meeting after meeting, he was teaching me through his example something I did not know at the time about true leadership, and certainly something we don’t see too often in a man of his stature, that wisdom is built upon “intellectual humility.” Saint Louis University defines intellectual humility as “an intellectual virtue, a character trait that allows the intellectually humble person to think and reason well. It is plausibly related to open-mindedness, a sense of one’s own fallibility, and a healthy recognition of one’s intellectual debts to others.” That is precisely what Prof. Whitney taught me with his example. He was humble enough to listen everyone’s opinions. He accepted when he was not right or was not sure about his pronouncements. But, above all, he always recognized the people who helped him to gain the knowledge he garnered over his lifetime and made a proper reference to the ideas that were not originally his. He thanked Dr. W. E. Deming for influencing his professional life; I thank him for influencing mine.

These traits were precisely what defined him and which are definitely reflected over his lifelong mission: the pursuit of wisdom. Wisdom requires being intellectually humble enough to always remember yourself that you do not know everything and never will. That things change and you always have to keep an eye open for it. That everyone has a piece of reality that you do not have. And, that part of that learning is to find joy in teaching what you have learned too.

Everyone who knew him will agree with the point I am making in this short commentary about the best lesson I have ever learned from a wise man: always leave the door open to listening and learning from everyone and everything around you, turn yourself into a lifelong student that ultimately and, more probably, unconsciously will turn you into a wise man.

In memory of Prof. John O. Whitney.

Miguel Martinez-Zavala
MBA 2012, University of St. Thomas
Coauthor of The New Economics of Trust (Beard Books, 2014) along with Prof. John O. Whitney

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Read more about Miguel’s work with Prof. Whitney on his book The New Economics of Trust

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