The Lost Art of Humility

By October 9, 2017 No Comments
lost art of humility

I often try to invoke the lessons applied by the companies in Jim Collins’s thought-provoking book, Good to Great. Collins takes a deep dive into the inner workings of several companies that made the leap from being a good company to being a great company. Collins found that a common characteristic among companies that make the leap to greatness is a CEO that exercises “Level 5 Leadership.”

One of the traits that defines Level 5 Leadership, unsurprisingly, is “fierce resolve,” the fortitude, patience, and unrelenting focus to follow a vision to its realization. Another trait that is common to Level 5 Leaders is less intuitive – humility.

Every week, we hear stories about the excesses of corporate CEOs and the poor decisions they make that lead to their downfalls. Certainly, the sins and scandals of those leaders who have fallen from grace are more interesting and far more likely to dominate headlines than the smart, steady leaders whose passions lie in advancing the interests of their organizations and their people ahead of their personal interests. These are the leaders who are willing to acknowledge mistakes and weaknesses within themselves as well as within their organizations. Such acknowledgment is fundamental to progress and success.

When employees see leaders who acknowledge their personal fallibility, a culture is established that recognizes that achieving greatness is a journey and that a necessary step in that journey is conceding when systems and processes are broken. How can something be fixed in an environment when the fallacy of perfection is valued over the humility and courage that is required for someone to raise his or her hand and say, “Something’s wrong here.”

I have seen a number of blog posts and articles recently that describe a phenomenon at play in organizations that don’t just tolerate people acting like (jerks) in the workplace, but actually misinterpreting arrogance, rudeness, and aggression for intelligence and talent. It’s been my exact experience that a massive ego carries disproportional respect in board rooms and within upper echelons of management. Come to the table being confident and resolute—regardless of whether you are wrong—and you’re far more likely to gain the respect of colleagues and superiors than if you come to the table saying you don’t know the answer or that there is problem (even if you don’t know the answer or there is, in fact, a problem).

In working extensively with investor relations professionals in the recent past, I found it equal parts ironic and depressing that so many of them lived in fear of providing necessary criticism to their CEOs. This, after all, is a critical component of their jobs. And it is a major problem if a CEO’s ego prevents him or her from accepting criticism of their words and actions when those words and actions carry such enormous significance and can harm companies’ stock prices or even violate the law. But the working thesis of investor relations professionals was this: “What do you call investor relations professionals with the courage and conviction to offer constructive criticism to their CEOs? Unemployed.”

Equifax comes to mind as a recent example when humility took a backseat to ego and led to a cascading, catastrophic sequence of decisions. Just think about the levels of temerity and denial that must be present not just to cover-up a security breach of such colossal proportions, but later to fail to acknowledge the severity of the problem. And what type of ego must executives have to compound the severity of the problem by selling stock for personal gain before the problems became public and before as shareholders would get hammered?

Michael Lewis famously coined a term, that I cannot use in a G- or even PG-rated column, to describe those with the biggest egos on Wall Street. And you can go back to the financial crisis to see how those types of people, with their egos clouding sensibility and judgment, allowed a systematic problem to be ignored and plunged our entire global economy into chaos.

Imagine if the leaders of the period had the humility to acknowledge the problem. Imagine if their own humility had made it easier for their people to identify the flaws, potential repercussions, and ways to solve or alleviate the problem.

But that doesn’t happen in most circumstances. In most circumstances, humility – despite its well-chronicled contribution to the long-term success of an organization – is viewed as weakness.

Let me finish with an example. Ten or 12 years ago I was attending a presentation in Chicago. The room was filled with 200 incredibly smart, very successful people. Nearly all of them had egos the size of a freight train. The speaker that night was an admired, exalted authority in their business. I had met the man earlier in the day as he was checking into the hotel and introduced myself. I found him to be the single most arrogant person I’ve ever encountered. He was a big guy and as he was speaking that night, his presence was even bigger. He seemed like a giant up there at the podium and he addressed the audience of smart, successful people as if they didn’t deserve to breathe the same air as he did. He was pompous, argumentative, and dismissive of anyone who dared to question his authority. He spoke with a level of a condemnation and disdain for his audience that I have never witnessed.

I thought the audience would be offended. I thought they would be highly critical of his demeanor. But as the evening progressed I looked around and took a mental survey of the room. They absolutely LOVED and admired the guy. His lack of even the smallest sliver of humility made him that much more impressive to them.