Humility and Leadership

22 Nov
2008

As I contemplate leadership and what it means to me, humility emerges as the number one underrated trait. Why is that? Perhaps because our society rewards the outgoing / powerful / know-it-all personalities? Perhaps… Or is it because we look at our business leaders as the complete authority, and are taught in school to think “inside the box” and accept whatever corporate policy there is as the end-all-be-all? Which is a funny concept, because for such a me-me-me culture, we are certainly taught to follow and not question status quo. In school, there is always one right answer, whereas in life, that is rarely the case (well, it’s actually almost never the case).

My personal view on life is that learning is really the only mission we are tasked with carrying out. Our job is to leave this planet wiser than we came to it, while using our wisdom to effect change. However, we can’t learn if we aren’t humble, because at the core of learning is the realization that no matter how much we learn and know, we will never know everything. We will forever strive for the ultimate truth, but will never reach it. Each adversity that each person or business unit faces, each failure, must be taken as an opportunity for learning. Unfortunately, our culture doesn’t reward failure, and most corporate cultures don’t want to take risks, for the fear of failure. Taking calculated risks for the purpose of learning and getting better, so that you may eventually win, is key.  You must extract all the value that you can from each unpleasant situation. One of my favorite quotes is: “If you are hurting, you are growing” (no idea where it came from, so I can’t credit the source, although I am fairly certain it came from a motivational book).

What makes winners winners is the ability to get up quickly after falling, extract the learning aggressively and apply the lessons right away. But to do that, you  must be humble. If you aren’t, then you will likely pretend that you didn’t really fall, will issue a press conference saying that everything is OK, perhaps even muddy up the financials to disguise the problem. Humility is NOT synonymous with being a pushover or a doormat. It is simply the ability to step outside of your own mind, recognize that a mistake is being made, before it gets too late, gain input, collaborate and figure out a way  out of the situation. If you thinnk hard enough, and involve the right resources, there is always some kind of a way out. It may not solve the problem 100%, but action always beats inaction.

Bottom line is, if “The Big 3” of Detroit spent a little more time listening to the market, its customers and other inputs, they wouldn’t be in such a predicament. And yes, the auto industry malaise is mainly brough on by the credit crunch, no doubt. However, they weren’t exactly doing well before the whole crash started. On the flipside, Toyota and Honda aren’t asking for bailouts, even though they are facing the same credit issues. I am only using the auto industry as an example of an old-school, unbending, know-it-all attitude that really plagues most of Big Corporate America. I am simply using them as an example because the Big 3 have the mindshare right now. If our business leaders dropped the know-it-all ‘tude, opened themselves up to criticism, took the time to understand the needs of the market and competitive threats (come on! any MBA can do the SWAT analysis in less than 30 minutes!), then perhaps they could win. The speed with which business progresses these days, spurred by the ever-increasing pace of innovation and proliferation of information via the Web, forces companies to become nimble in order to survive. If they don’t adapt, they will eventually die. Which is why I believe the auto industry bailout is a mistake.  The current shakeup in our financial markets, which has caused a shakeup of the entire world economy, is actually a disguised opportunity to learn, adapt quickly, and separate the winners from the losers. Unfortunatley for the losers (and fortunately for the world at large), this is survival of the fittest. This is the way it should be. You must learn and adapt in order to survive. Let free markets rule. Let leadership lead with humility.

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  • http://www.scientificleader.com scientificleader

    I’m with you on both the humility aspect of leadership and with the free market’s “creative destruction” reusing assets in better purposes when prior firms fail.

    I did one blog post on the lack of humility of Lehman Brother’s Dick Fuld here http://blog.scientificleader.com/2008/10/06/wanted-ceo-humility-wisdom/

  • maria

    Hi there, scientificleader! Thanks for sharing your post. Very well said, indeed!

  • http://www.tavomt.com Gustavo

    Hola, como estas, tu pagina es excelente, si queres pasate por mi pagina y dejame un comentario, tengo mucho trafico en mi sitio, si te interesa podemos hacer un intercambio de links, banners, cualquier cosa avisame, te dejo mi web http://www.tavomt.com mando un abrazo.

  • http://www.MyrtleBeachGuru.info Mirela Monte

    DEFEAT WITH GRACE;
    VICTORY WITH HUMILITY

    Mirela

  • http://twitter.com/AustenHunter Austen

    Hi Maria, I notice you wrote this in your “pre-Yammer” days. Was wondering if you’d considered this from an internal perspective i.e. between business leaders and staff, rather than business and customers. Whilst   “the customer is always right” is at least a sentiment that many may recognise nowadays, I wonder how many bosses would entertain something similar in relation to their staff

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