8 Reasons Why Humility Is A Necessary Skill For Founders

Awesome founders aren’t afraid to admit that sometimes, they just don’t have a fucking clue.

I met the founder of a local startup last weekend (let’s call him George), and was inspired. I was inspired because even though I barely knew George, he didn’t feel the need to put on a facade about the growth trajectory of his business. In fact, he was rather candid in telling me how clueless he felt most of the time in trying to figure out what to do next. Mind you, George isn’t a first time entrepreneur — he’s had a few successes (and failures) in the past, is highly experienced and actually seems to be working on something rather compelling. The more I talked to him, the more I could feel his aura of success stemming from his sense of self awareness. After our thirty minute conversation, I realized that George’s ability to remain self aware was being driven by his sense of humility.

I thought about my conversation with “Humble George” and came up with 8 reasons why humility is a necessary skill for founders:

  1. You want to stay focussed on your customers towards building a fantastic product. It’s easy (and often convenient) to hand off ‘menial’ tasks like customer support as a company grows and raises some money. Stay humble, be modest and don’t be afraid to continue to get your hands dirty (e.g. by continuing to get on the phones and doing customer support/customer development). By doing so, you (and your team) will learn infinitely more about your customers.
  2. You want your team to follow you into battle. The founder should be an effective leader, capable of motivating and rallying her entire team. An effective leader is someone whom you deeply respect, someone who leads by example, and someone who recognizes that she cannot win without her team. Humility allows her to recognize that the combined value of her team is greater than any one individual, especially herself.
  3. You want a contagious outbreak of humble behaviour empowering leadership within your startup’s culture. Founders are fundamentally responsible for building the company culture, and setting an example for the type of behaviour that is encouraged as the company grows. If a founder is willing to show humility in learning from his employees, his team will feel empowered and more likely to do the same when they lead. Humility breeds more humility.
  4. You want to avoid being blindsided by the competition. There is a stark difference between optimism and realism. While it is absolutely necessary to remain optimistic about the future of the business, trying to distort reality will inevitably lead to your failure. Humility helps keep you grounded during the bad times, and one step ahead of the competition during the good times.
  5. You want to build yourself a protective shield against entrepreneurial sensationalism. Amongst all the magazine articles and speaking opportunities, it’s very easy to get caught up in your “success” and disconnected from your business. Humility allows you to remain maniacally focussed on building your business as your first priority and block out all the noise.
  6. You want to build a creativity machine. Innovation comes from trying things that are new and scary without the fear of being reprimanded for failure. If your team sees you trying new things, staying open minded to feedback and taking responsibility for your mistakes, they will continue to support you. Your team will empathize with you, help you come up with the solutions and even celebrate the entire learning process when you do in fact succeed. Humility enables you to remain objective, by allowing those around you to feel comfortable in challenging your ideas and opinions. This leads to more creativity within the startup.
  7. You want all the help you can possibly get. Just because you don’t have all of the answers, doesn’t mean there aren’t other people on your team who do, or people within your extended network capable and willing to help you. In the startup world of uncertainty, it really does take a village; humility gives you the confidence to ask for help when you need it.
  8. You want to not be afraid. You’ve dealt with the pressure, the stress, and have moved mountains to get where you are today. The world sees you as Superman (or Superwoman) and you’re on this euphoric high, despite experiencing a gnawing sense of fear knowing that it can’t last forever. Humility allows you to face your fears, fight your ego and accept that you’re only human.

Thanks to “Humble George” for an engaging conversation leading to this post and thank you for taking the time to read it. If you’re a founder or work at a startup, I would love to hear your feedback on the importance of humility in your world.

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Image Credits: Humble George — By naturalturn (left) & Achmed — By naturalturn (right)