A Dollop of Humility

What are the leadership attributes that contribute to long-term success? That help get through adversity?

I was reflecting on these questions as I put together our year-end review of crises, The Year of Living Self-Destructively. The defining crises of 2007 were all self-inflicted; even where the triggering event was external, the leader’s handling of the crisis only made things worse.

What these crises had in common was this: the leaders who caused the self-inflicted harm exhibited little, if any, humility.

  • Eastern Michigan University’s ex-president John Fallon has sued the school’s regents, insisting that he was wrongfully discharged. This despite a baffling lack of curiosity about a student’s brutal murder, and both an independent investigation and a US Department of Education finding that concluded that on his watch the school violated federal law by failing to warn that a student’s death was a likely homicide; he also lost a faculty no-confidence vote.
  • Larry Craig is still in the US Senate, even though he publicly announced that he would resign by October 1. He then said he would stay in the Senate if a Minnesota judge allowed him to change his guilty plea for disorderly conduct. The judge refused, but Senator Craig remains, still insisting that he isn’t gay, which opens the door for men who claim to have had sex with him to tell their stories to the newspapers.
  • World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz and Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez stayed in office long after their ability to operate effectively had passed, and long after doing meaningful harm to their own and their institutions’ reputations.
  • FEMA’s public affairs staff, choosing to crow about FEMA not screwing up in the California wildfires, committed self-immolation by pretending to be reporters in a nationally-televised press conference.

What these and other defining crises show is an inability to see things from the perspective of a stakeholder. One word keeps coming up in media coverage and blogs about these crises: arrogance.

At about the same time our year-end crisis piece was posted, the Harvard Business Review blog, Conversation Starter, had an interesting post about leaders taking responsibility in a crisis. That post discusses Good to Great author Jim Collins’ HBR article on Level 5 Leadership. Collins says that the best leaders are those with a paradoxical combination of humility and fierce resolve.

Humility isn’t a word you often see in business. Humility all too often is interpreted as weakness, especially in competitive cultures like Wall Street, politics, or the top of big organizations.

But a dollop of humility tempers other attributes, and makes a leader even stronger. Humility helps a leader to recognize that maybe – just maybe – he or she might be wrong; that there may be other valid perspectives; that he or she doesn’t have to be the smartest person in every room, at every meeting.

Humility also helps leaders to connect with others up, down, and across the chain of command; to build organizations and cultures that more likely thrive; to understand the perspectives of other stakeholders.

Emotional intelligence guru Daniel Goleman, in his HBR article, What Makes a Good Leader, identifies self-awareness as the first leadership skill: “People with a high degree of self-awareness know their weaknesses and aren’t afraid to talk about them.” He notes, however, that many executives mistake such candor for “wimpiness.”

Jim Collins also acknowledges the danger of misinterpreting humility for weakness. He notes that the most effective leaders are a study in duality: “modest and willful, shy and fearless. To grasp this concept, consider Abraham Lincoln, who never let his ego get in the way of his ambition to create an enduring great nation… Those who thought Lincoln’s understated manner signaled weakness in the man found themselves terribly mistaken.”

Finally, humility recognizes that there’s a big difference between responsibility and blame; that taking responsibility regardless of where the blame may lay down the organization is the first step in getting people to focus on a solution rather than simply point fingers.

For a very interesting account of humility in a crisis, see the January 1 New York Times piece by a cardiologist on how he made and dealt with a medical error that put a patient in serious risk. His own humility was instrumental in the patient deciding to continue treatment with him rather than with other cardiologists.

I’m going to continue to explore the paradox of humility combined with fierce resolve as 2008 unfolds. I’ll be looking in particular for examples of when the combination exists and helps an organization weather a crisis well; when it is lacking and crises only get worse and worse; and, of course, when things turn out differently. I welcome your ideas, thoughts, and examples.