The X-Factor of Great Leadership

why humility comes first

Character is a critical ingredient in your leadership. It influences your thoughts, feelings and actions. Be intentional with it.

This week’s blog is the second in an occasional series on character.

Click here to read the first installment.

Last year, the CEO of Procter and Gamble, one of the world’s largest consumer product companies, did something surprising. He stood up at the company’s annual shareholders’ meeting and admitted that he was at fault for the poor performance of the company’s stock, which had fallen 19% the previous year. He simply said:

The buck stops with me.

Humility matters in leadership. Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, says, “the X-factor of great leadership is not personality; it is humility.”

We can easily misinterpret humility. It doesn’t describe leaders with low self-confidence or poor self-worth. And humble leaders are not pushovers. No, humility’s companion is strength.

Humble leaders are, in fact, quite self-assured. Their self-assurance gives them the freedom to look outside of themselves. C. S. Lewis wrote that “true humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”

The humble, but confident leader is:

  • open to learning and growing
  • a catalyst for great teamwork
  • willing to acknowledge her own mistakes
  • able to break down silos in an organization
  • willing to incorporate the perspectives of others

The opposite of humility is not confidence, but arrogance.

The arrogant leader puts himself (and his organization!) in danger. He is:

  • slow to listen to advice from others
  • quickly offended
  • blind to his weaknesses
  • apt to believe he can’t make mistakes
  • more likely to be detached from what is really happening in the organization

A note on arrogance: it can be very subtle. Arrogance prevents leaders from asking for help; it pushes them to project “I have it all together.”

The reality is that we are all arrogant at times — and pride underlies most of our vices. This is why humility is key. It is the effective antidote, enabling most of the other virtues of good character.

Humility doesn’t just make for nice people. Humility is good for business. Companies like Google and Whole Foods use humility as a trait they look for in hiring.

This study from the University of Washington Foster School of Business concluded:

“…humble people are more likely to be high performers in individual and team settings. They also tend to make the most effective leaders.”

Most of us have room to cultivate more humility. Begin by admitting that you are sometimes arrogant. Lewis again — “If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step…realize that one is proud.”

Once you acknowledge your pride, start listening. Humility is the voice that asks:

  • Who could I ask for help in this situation?
  • Where are my blind spots?
  • What is new for me to learn here?
  • What impact will my actions have on others around me?
  • How can I consider the needs of others before my own?

Finally, as you start your day, keep this in mind: “Others helped me get where I am; others help me stay where I am; others will help me get to where I want to go.”

Last week, a longtime former client reached out to me. I hadn’t heard from him in about six months. He said he was calling for two reasons.

First, he wanted to let me know that a company where he had served in the C-Suite for many years was finally being sold. He is going to reap significant financial rewards from the sale. But secondly, he was calling to express appreciation. In his words, I had been “on the journey” with him for many of those years, and he wanted to thank me.

In hitting this milestone of success, my client could have just cultivated an attitude of proud self-congratulation. But he didn’t do that. Instead, his humility prompted him to think of others who had helped along the way.

Thomas Merton says it well — “Pride makes us artificial and humility make us real.”

Bring this into your leadership today. It isn’t all about you.


Originally published at mckinnoncompany.com on October 19, 2016.