When you think of the worst leaders that you’ve encountered in your lifetime, what traits do you recall? Probably not humility according to lifehack.org‘s Marilyn Rogers.
Did they lead with a heavy hand? Did they exhibit poor communication skills? Or were they simply know-it-alls with no desire to learn from their peers and employees? What they almost certainly have in common is lack of humility. Unfortunately, humility is commonly not rewarded and self-promotion prevails. What many of these leaders haven’t discovered is that humility is an underrated and powerful leadership trait.
Jim Collins, a renowned management researcher, has invested years into studying what make companies successful. His article, Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve, published by the Harvard Business Review summarizes his research from a five-year study. Collins learned that out of 1,435 Fortune 500 companies, only 11 reached persistent success with stock returns three or more times the market. What these companies have in common is they have what Collins refers to as Level 5 Leaders at the helm. Level 5 Leaders possess a combination of two important skills: humility and professional will.
Jim Collins is quoted as saying “Level 5 leaders are a study in duality: modest and willful, humble and fearless.” Think about the leaders that you respect. Do they boast about their accomplishments, intelligence and experience, or is their understated but obvious confidence enough to build your admiration?
When we ponder the best leaders in history who possess the duality that Collins discusses, Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, and Eleanor Roosevelt come to mind. These leaders displayed confidence, strength and boldness, without tooting their own horns. They gave credit where credit was due and also exhibited a fierce will to succeed in their missions.
When business leaders are in touch with their employees and customers, they make better decisions about their businesses and build rapport. Leaders in any type of organization and at any level can ultimately be successful by being in touch and joining with the people in the trenches. This practice is referred to as MBWA “Managing By Wandering Around,” which was originally coined by John Young, President of Hewlett Packard, and was made famous by management guru Tom Peters.
If you want to stand out in a time when a top-down management approach is popular, make an effort to get to know the people in your organization and step into their roles to understand the events that you would otherwise miss. For example, the undeniable leader Steve Jobs, although considered a narcissist by many, demonstrated qualities of humility by getting his hands dirty. CNN reported that Jobs personally responded to some customer service requests while at Apple.
Leaders who manage with a heavy hand and don’t gather input from their employees are less successful than those who trust their employees. Contrary to this, leaders who possess humility empower others around them to make decisions. Effective leaders hire the best resources and trust them. When they know they have the right people on board, they follow a bottom-up management style, which empowers employees to assist in the process of making decisions about the actions necessary to attain goals. Theodore Roosevelt once said, “The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.”
When success occurs, leaders who exhibit humility give credit to their team members and to other factors. If failure occurs, they accept responsibility for it. What many leaders don’t realize is that accepting blame actually empowers them to take responsibility to fix the problem. For example, imagine you’re the leader of a sales organization and your sales team is not performing at a level that’s acceptable. A leader who doesn’t exhibit humility might blame the marketing team for lack of leads, the product team for poor product or others involved in the sales process. A leader who exhibits humility blames oneself and develops a plan to improve performance.
Leaders who make quick decisions in order to fix something today that will in no way benefit the organization in the long-term are not acting with humility. A great example of making short-term decisions is the common practice of profitable companies downsizing in order to appease shareholders. Typically, layoffs reduce expenses so the numbers are favorable in the short-term, which increases the stock price. This short-term fix doesn’t put long-term profits or employee productivity at top of mind. It typically hurts employee morale, puts more stress on the employees who survive the layoff and hinders progress. Thinking long term keeps companies relevant for employees, customers and shareholders for years to come.