Humility as a key trait of great Leaders
Leadership for me is a highly fascinating and sophisticated topic. There is no such thing as “the one right style”, in fact, I think that research on this field is even still debating whether it’s something acquired or innate. There are different approaches to it and while I think they all hold some truth, I doubt they are complete enough to be applicable to the multitude of situations that require one or another form of leadership (when does an action qualify as leadership anyway?)…
That said, there are some leadership philosophies that quite resonate with me and which come close to what I, personally, consider good leadership. One of these concepts is called “Level 5 Leadership” and is a guiding theme throughout Jim Collins’ book “Good to Great”. I haven’t read the book yet (it’s been on my shelf for far too long), but I did read a case study by HBS on it.
In summary, the author analyzed 1,435 Fortune 500 companies and only found only 11 that achieved and maintained greatness (defined as: garnering stock returns at least three times the market’s — for 15 years after a major transition period). What Collins found out was that the leaders of these companies were such Level 5 leaders who, by his definition, blend the paradoxical combination of deep personal humility with intense professional will.
I wasn’t much surprised by the latter part of the definition, but deep personal humility? Could humility really be that much of a key differentiator I thought? As I kept on reading, I learned that these type of Level 5 leaders routinely credit others, external factors and good luck for their companies’ success. They credit others for their successes and take the blame for the collective mishaps.
I further learned that their willpower and drive (the part that didn’t really surprise me) are channeled into the cause of the endeavor. They don’t make it about themselves. It doesn’t matter how they look to the public or how what they do will reflect on their careers, the money or the power. It’s just about their cause and the mission. And they have this utterly stoic desire to do whatever it takes to succeed for the sake of that cause.
As I thought about it, I got reminded of another interesting piece of research that I read in the book “Give and Take” which is very much aligned with this characteristic of humility. The author, Adam Grant, was introducing the concept of “Givers” and “Takers.” Givers being people who constantly give their time, effort and resources to help others without any expectation of return whereas Takers do the exact opposite (take other people’s time, effort and resources with no intention of returning).
Grant was mentioning three examples that were indicators of givers (who are generally very humble). First factor he identified was the gap in compensation between the CEO and the next highest-paid executive. The gap of Giver-type CEOs was significantly lower than that of Taker-type CEOs.
The second cue was based on how these CEOs spoke. The takers tended to use first-person singular pronouns, like “I” and “me,” as opposed to “us” and “we,” when talking about the company.
The third indicator was that the takers thought it was all about them: I am the most important and central figure in this company. When you looked at their photos in the company’s annual reports, they actually had larger photos. They were even more likely to be pictured alone.
My own experience has shown that the best and most successful managers in my career have been the ones who were the humblest. The ones who really made it about the mission, not their ego. Once again, there are many important traits, but the next time I hear someone say “I did this, I built that,” this research on humility can help put things into perspective!
Originally published at www.ThePositude.com on October 26, 2015.