Mike Nichols, the great director and eclectic film and theater wise man, died of a heart attack on November 19, 2014. Among other qualities, Nichols was notably a humble man. I always liked him.
I was an actor earlier in my life and, though I never worked with Mike Nichols, I wrote him once about a little off-Broadway piece he was doing in 1978 at the Public Theater called Drinks Before Dinner. He sent me back a very sweet hand-written note thanking me for sharing my thoughts and telling me his reason for doing the play. Despite his accomplishments he was a man of existential humility and sincerity, open to all things and all people, far from the grandiosity others might have succumbed to in his place.
Nichols’ genuine humility was a gift. It was a useful quality that buttressed his theatrical artistry. The same trait should be cultivated as a base skill by all of us entrepreneurs. After all, the entrepreneurial vocation is not so very different from the artist’s.
Jonah Lehrer wrote an essay on the quality of humility in the Wall Street Journal several years ago, titled “The Power Trip,” on what psychologists call “the paradox of power.” (WSJ, 8/14/10) He made the point that often the very traits that helped leaders rise to power or success disappear when they ascend. Lehrer says, “Instead of continuing to be polite, honest, and outgoing, they often become impulsive, reckless and rude.”
People with power may become subject to hubristic overreach and Icarus-like arrogance. Lehrer quotes extensively from University of California at Berkeley psychologist Dr. Dacher Keltner‘s scientific findings from studies of power and success. Dr. Kelter states, “When you give people power, they basically start acting like fools. They flirt inappropriately, tease in a hostile fashion, and become totally impulsive.” Keltner compares the feeling of power to brain damage, stating that people with great power tend to behave like neurological patients with a damaged orbito-frontal lobe, a brain area essential for empathy and decision-making.
An entrepreneur is a person of power, if only in her very small pond. And, as such, is subject to the unbalancing lures that can come with power.
Peggy Noonan wrote an exceptionally lovely encomium to Mike Nichols last week in the WSJ. (Saturday, Nov. 29. 1014, A-13) Commenting on Nichols humility, Noonan said the following: “[Nichols] once told me he didn’t direct movies, he cast them. In a way it was a line and a typically modest one–it wasn’t him, it was them–but it also wasn’t. He was saying he picks actors who have the quality and depth to do what he wants, and he trusts them to do what he wants, and he trusts them to come through. That is a great thing, when an artist trusts his paint.”
And so should the entrepreneur trust his paint. The growing trend of “empathetic management” is increasingly recognizing this point. By trusting your paint (your associates and employees) you nourish a sense of ownership, a sense of communal responsibility, and, ideally, activate a veritable army of mini-CEOs and innovators to work in harness with you.
Actor John Goodman said this about Mike Nichols as a director: “He made me feel as if I was a full partner or co-conspirator in finding clues to solve the puzzle.” Creating such an attitude, such a trope in a corporate community would surely be a triumph of empathetic leadership for any entrepreneur. So thank you John Goodman. And thank you Mike Nichols.