A Dollop of Humility

By Helio Fred Garcia
January 2nd, 2008


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.

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  • Welcome to the blogosphere, my friend! I’m looking forward to your ongoing commentary.

    I also read that NYT piece, and was very struck by a couple of things it confirmed for me. First, that a great many times, people end up in litigation out of a desire to hear the other party own up to their role in an event. More times than folks think, it isn’t about the money (at least not at first!)

    Second, I found myself very touched by that doctor’s ongoing crisis of conscience, and his willingness to be so vulnerable. The risk to his career felt quite real, and yet I could also identify with his patient. Most of us feel more confident about a doctor who will own up to his humanity; we want to trust those who care for us. I think I would have stayed with him too.

  • John Hurley says:

    In an increasingly cluttered blogosphere characterized by sound and fury, it is rare that I delight in news of a new blog. But today is that rare day. I look forward to reading posts that are as interesting and enjoyable as this first entry.

    Two thoughts: First, the diagnostic process described in the NYT article demonstrates the importance of feedback loops: without the angiogram, the physician probably wouldn’t have known of his patient’s “widow-maker lesion” until it had lived up to its name. Those in decision-making positions need to pay attention to information that can inform their decisions.

    But in this age of information overload, leaders also have to be able to distinguish the important information from the background noise. Not all information is as clearly relevant as this angiogram. And the arrogance of the leaders mentioned in this post prevented them from effectively evaluating the information they did have. Self-confidence and humility need to be balanced…..easier said than done.

  • Fred,

    Great post. A fitting opening, particularly in this political season.

    As you know, theology is also on your side.

    Arrogance — otherwise known as hubris — is the original sin. And after several millenniums of alleged human development we still seem to be no better equipped to deal with it. It is, unfortunately, integral to the human condition. I think that may be why Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at MIT calls us “predictably irrational.” (the book comes out next month … I highly recommend it).

    And perhaps that is why the Sermon on the Mount starts with … Blessed are the humble.


  • Elizabeth Marsh says:

    Hi, thanks for your perspective and critical analysis of crises and their outcomes. I’ve learned a lot already and hope to continue to do so.

    In reading this blog entry, I’m also thinking about the recent incident at the San Francisco Zoo, in which a tiger escaped it’s confinement and killed one young man and injured two others. The legal battle is mounting, with a celebrity lawyer and a well-known “crisis control guru” now playing roles in the outcome. I’d be interested to follow your expert analysis if this example fits your needs.

  • Anne Bradner says:

    Only when I gave up on various versions of Roget’s Thesaurus and tracked back to my 1974 Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (“new”!) could I find confirmation that the [third]definition for HONEST is HUMBLE.

    This kind of important dialogue might encourage all of us to re-define the definition of HUMILTY to include HONESTY … which I haven’t yet found in any dictionary or Thesaurus I’ve looked at since reading this provocative blog.

    Humility requires a great deal of honesty … and the willingness to achieve it.

  • Tim McMahon says:

    First, my compliments and gratitude for setting up your BLOG so elegantly and leading with a compelling topic.

    We often place our leaders in positions that cause them to think that they must be invincible when what we really want from them is competence. Competence recognizes human beings have limits. When a leader admits vulnerability, others are invited into the process of leading and decision making.

    With regard to the leader skills needed, Joseph Rost (1993) defines leadership “as an influence relationship among leaders and followers who intend real changes that reflect their mutual purposes” (p. 102). Leaders will be well-served when they realize their limitations and lean on other members (through such things as “feedback loops” as John Hurley suggests above) for guidance and support in serving mutual purposes.

    Tim McMahon

    Rost, J. C. (1993). Leadership for the 21st century. Praeger: Westport, CT.

  • Bink Garrison says:


    Glad to have access to your thinking on these topics. The humility bone is severely underdeveloped in the average CEO.


  • I too believe that humility is considered a weakness in the world. I hope that changes though in 2008.

    I believe the downsizing and outsourcing of the jobs in the corporate sector of America have helped to lead us into our current downward spiral toward a recession. I’m not in finance but it is so obvious that our leadership needs to change their behavior.

    I hope HUMILITY does become a by-word in 2008. Otherwise, maybe the “land of the free and home of the brave” will become more of a memory than reality. (then again, my positive side wants America to just get out there and give again without thinking always about the bottom line)