3 Things Adam Grant Taught Me About Humility

To launch my podcast, I invited Wharton professor and multiple New York Times bestselling author Adam Grant to join me (and Joe Dumars) to discuss the role humility plays in impactful leadership.

In particular, I was interested in Adam’s knowledge of academic studies of leadership and how we can weave the learnings into the daily practices of our organizations.

Image: CNBC.com

To begin, I asked Adam, at a basic level, what is humility?

“It’s about not seeing yourself as better than others”

“Fundamentally, it’s about being grounded — I’m human, I make mistakes, I always have ways to improve,” says Adam, whose 2013 book Give and Take is still considered the go-to source for understanding the impact humility can have on both team and individual performance.

Adam, who grew up in Detroit as a huge Pistons, considers Joe the model for a leader who exhibited humility at every turn: “Here is someone who is not only a great scorer, but also guards and shuts down Michael Jordan. But he’s never talking about how great he is, he’s just trying to show up every day and contribute.”

It’s a trait that not only served Joe well as a player, but also as a team builder. As president and general manager of the Pistons, Joe’s 2004 team had no superstars, but would go on to upset Phil Jackson’s Los Angeles Lakers team that was stacked with Hall-of-Famers Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Karl Malone, and Gary Payton.

“We need to stop confusing confidence with competence.”

The question needs to be asked: if we know the power of humble bosses, why do we keep promoting narcissists into positions of leadership?

Adam says that in sports we make slightly better decisions because we can see the performance stats, whereas in business we struggle because so much of performance is invisible. This leads us to confuse confidence with competence.

Fortunately, there are some telltale signs:

“The research on narcissistic CEOs,” Adam tells me, “shows that their photo in the annual report tends to be larger, and they’re more likely to be pictured alone. They overpay themselves, have bigger signatures, and say “I” rather than “me” in speeches.”

“Who is the person you look up to most on our team?”

It can be soul-crushing to work for an incompetent boss, but even within dysfunctional teams we tend to subconsciously know who the real leader is — even if they don’t have an official leadership title.

You can identify this person because other team members tend to mill around their desk looking for actual direction, or go to this person as a confidante or mentor during troubled times.

To find the real leader, Adam says you can ask members of the team: “Who is the person that makes you better?” Often, you’ll find team members recognize that a role model has emerged and it’s someone who shows up early, stays late, and sacrifices personal goals for collective achievement.

I believe that our inability to identify and promote the right type of leaders has handcuffed our businesses, and is the number one barrier to sustained success across an organization.

Taking these 3 learnings into consideration, my challenge to leaders is this:

  1. Find your narcissistic leaders and repurpose them into positions as individual contributors or subject matter experts?
  2. Ask your team members who the real leaders on the team are…trust me, they know!
  3. Reinvent hiring and promotion processes to create pathways for humble leaders to find their way into leadership positions. Remember: it’s not the most confident, it’s the most competent.