Why We Need Humble Leaders
By Eric Layer
Winston Churchill once said of his political enemy Clement Attlee, “Mr. Attlee is a humble man, but he has much to be humble about!”
We expect pride of our leaders. If you’ve accomplished much, you have much to be proud of. A great leader who is humble is perceived as an anomaly: “He’s done so much, and yet he’s so humble!” As if humility is an impediment to success that must be overcome.
But humility enables success. The bombastic, cocky CEO might be a popular stereotype, but the quiet, humble executive is a far more accurate picture of success. In fact, through three national studies and twenty years of experience, my firm has identified four factors consistently tied to a company’s growth prospects: alignment, consistency, focus, and nerve. Humility in the C-suite goes a long way in helping any company achieve all four. Here’s how:
Humble leaders align their teams. Jeff Bezos isn’t exactly known for his humility, but his “disagree and commit” principle is steeped in it. All the way up to multi-million dollar decisions, Amazon leadership follows a precedent of committing to wholeheartedly support a peer’s recommendation after a healthy discussion – even if you still disagree with it. At Amazon, the approach is more about expediency than virtue: consensus is cumbersome. But it illustrates the ROI on humility. Putting your own agenda, opinions, and conclusions second to those of your peers allows you to accomplish a lot more than if you have to win before you can move forward.
Humble leaders are consistent. Consistency doesn’t mean always doing the same thing, but always heading toward the same thing. Tactical changes are necessary for a strategy to remain consistent. The people most willing to question themselves are the people best-equipped to make those changes. Errors are inevitable. Will you correct course in small, manageable pieces as you look in the mirror every morning? Or will you make massive, costly course corrections only when you’re forced to by catastrophic failure?
Nintendo has been a leader in the video game industry for decades, and has consistently followed a principle of invention in the face of success and failure. Lesser brands are tempted to rest on their laurels after a victory or double down on a bad decision amidst loss, but Nintendo has done neither. Following the outrageous success of the Wii, they innovated with a new product. Following the failure of the Wii U, they innovated with a new product. When the Switch became the fastest-selling console in history, they innovated with a new product. That’s humility: the admission that you can always get better. You can’t be consistent if your strategy changes in the face of every win or loss.
Humble leaders are focused. I’m always surprised by how much time is spent—and how many brands are toppled—on minute matters of personal pride that became massive distractions for an entire office. A leader’s ego is a liability for an entire company.
Are you willing to remain small and agile, even if that doesn’t mean commanding a massive business? Will you accept a smart, conservative niche strategy tailored to your place in the market, even if it lacks the glitz of your competitors?
Warren Buffet has famously eschewed the flashy persona of other billionaire execs, choosing instead a lifestyle of practiced study and frugality. He will famously “avoid at all costs” anything not related to his top five priorities. That kind of focus (not to mention the incredible results that come from it) requires humility: the acknowledgement that you can’t do it all, and the willingness to sacrifice pride, grandiosity, or even dreams in favor of your most important objectives.
Humble leaders inspire nerve. The best brands have nerve. To reinvent entire industries, or to beat an army of well-funded competitors, requires grit. But nerve is a team attribute as much as an individual one. And “what the boss wants” is rarely a goal that will steel a team’s resolve in tough times.
Witness Apple post-Jobs. Or Starbucks post-Schultz. Even executives of phenomenal vision struggle to point to something greater than themselves. If nerve is rooted in a person instead of a purpose, it will falter the moment the person does. People can motivate, but purpose inspires nerve.
It’s an era of arrogance. From executives to political figures, our halls of leadership extol pride as a virtue. But taking a hard look in the mirror is a mark of strength, not weakness. Are you meeting your growth goals? If not, my firm’s research indicates your team likely lacks alignment, focus, consistency, or courage. And if that’s the case, the first step in the right direction might be to admit that you have much to be humble about.
Partner and author, Eric specializes in building things faster and better than mere mortals. Call Eric when you have an impossible mountain to climb. He’ll get you to the top.
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