Six prin­ci­ples for de­vel­op­ing hu­mil­ity as a leader

JOHN DAME AND JEF­FREY GEDMIN

Finweek English Edition - - MANAGEMENT -

We live in an era of self­cel­e­bra­tion, where fame is equated with suc­cess and be­ing self-ref­er­en­tial has be­come the norm. As a re­sult, peo­ple are en­cour­aged to pump them­selves full of alarm­ing self-con­fi­dence. Blus­ter and the alpha instinct, con­tends To­mas Chamorro-Pre­muzic, pro­fes­sor of busi­ness psy­chol­ogy, of­ten get mis­taken for abil­ity and ef­fec­tive­ness – at least for a while. This may well be why so many in­com­pe­tent men rise ahead of women to lead­er­ship po­si­tions, as Chamorro-Pre­muzic ar­gued in a re­cent on­line post for Har­vard Busi­ness Re­view.

Yes, there are scores of books, ar­ti­cles and stud­ies that warn of the per­ils of hubris. The word has Greek roots and means ex­treme pride and ar­ro­gance, gen- er­ally in­di­cat­ing a loss of con­nec­tion to re­al­ity brought about when those in power vastly over­es­ti­mate their ca­pa­bil­i­ties. And yes, there is ev­i­dence that its op­po­site, hu­mil­ity, in­spires loy­alty, help­ing to build and sus­tain co­he­sive, pro­duc­tive team­work and de­creas­ing staff turnover. Jim Collins had a lot to say about CEOs he saw demon­strat­ing mod­esty and lead­ing qui­etly, not charis­mat­i­cally, in his 2001 best­seller Good to Great.

Yet the at­tribute of hu­mil­ity seems to be ne­glected in lead­er­ship de­vel­op­ment pro­grammes. To the ex­tent it is con­sid­ered by man­agers ris­ing through the ranks, it is of­ten mis­un­der­stood. How can we change this?

First, we need to es­tab­lish a few things. Hu­mil­ity is not hos­pi­tal­ity, courtesy, or a kind and friendly de­meanour. Hu­mil­ity has noth­ing to do with be­ing meek, weak or in­de­ci­sive. Per­haps more sur­pris­ing, it does not en­tail shun­ning pub­licit y. Or­gan­i­sa­tions need peo­ple who un­der­stand mar­ket­ing, in­clud­ing self-mar­ket­ing, to f lour­ish and pros­per.

Hubris, mean­while, is not a fair label to ap­ply to any per­son who thinks dif­fer­ently and has the courage to as­sert or act on her con­vic­tions. Stud­ies show, how­ever, that se­ri­ous prob­lems emerge when ro­bust in­di­vid­u­al­ism com­min­gles with nar­cis­sism – an­other term for which we can thank the Greeks, whose demigod Nar­cis­sus fell in love with his own ref lec­tion. Nar­cis­sism com­bines an ex­ag­ger­ated sense of one’s own abil­i­ties and achieve­ments with a con­stant need for at­ten­tion, af­fir­ma­tion and praise. While the label tends to be ap­plied loosely to any­one

be­hav­ing in a self-ab­sorbed way, psy­chol­o­gists know nar­cis­sism to be a for­mal per­son­al­ity dis­or­der for some, and a real im­ped­i­ment to their form­ing healthy re­la­tion­ships. The nar­cis­sist lacks self-awarene s s a nd e mpat hy a nd i s of t e n hy­per­sen­si­tive to crit­i­cism or per­ceived in­sults. This type of per­son fre­quently ex­ag­ger­ates con­tri­bu­tions and claims to be ‘ex­pert’ at many dif­fer­ent things. If you are part of an or­gan­i­sa­tion with a leader ex­hibit­ing such char­ac­ter­is­tics, you have a prob­lem.

But be­yond re­fus­ing to hire or pro­mote such ex­treme cases, can and should or­gan­i­sa­tions try to cul­ti­vate the qual­ity of hu­mil­ity in their lead­er­ship ranks? How would that goal take shape in the con­text of a for­mal lead­er­ship de­vel­op­ment pro­gramme?

As a start­ing point, we sug­gest a cur­ricu­lum de­signed around six ba­sic prin­ci­ples. If you’re a de­vel­op­ing leader, you should be taught to:

1.

KNOW WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW.

Re­sist ‘mas­ter of the uni­verse’ im­pulses. You may ex­cel in an area, but as a leader you are, by def­i­ni­tion, a gen­er­al­ist. Rely on those who have rel­e­vant qual­i­fi­ca­tion and ex­per­tise. Know when to de­fer and del­e­gate.

2.

RE­SIST FALL­ING FOR YOUR OWN PUB­LIC­ITY. Whether we’re writ­ing a press re­lease or a self-ap­praisal, we all put the best spin on our suc­cesses – and then con­ve­niently for­get that the re­al­ity wasn’t as f law­less. Drink­ing in the glory of a tri­umph can be en­er­gis­ing. Too big a drink is in­tox­i­cat­ing. It blurs vi­sion and im­pairs judg­ment.

3.

NEVER UN­DER­ES­TI­MATE THE COM­PE­TI­TION.

You may be bril­liant, am­bi­tious and au­da­cious. But the world is f illed with other hard­work­ing, high-IQ and creative pro­fes­sion­als. Don’t kid your­self and as­sume that they and their in­no­va­tions aren’t a se­ri­ous threat.

4.

EM­BRACE AND PRO­MOTE A SPIRIT OF SER­VICE.

Em­ploy­ees quickly fig­ure out which lead­ers are ded­i­cated to help­ing them suc­ceed and which are scram­bling for per­sonal suc­cess at their ex­pense. Cus­tomers do too.

5.

LIS­TEN, EVEN (NO, ES­PE­CIALLY) TO THE WEIRD IDEAS.

Peo­ple usu­ally only lis­ten to what some­one else is say­ing when they’re not con­fi­dent that their own ideas are or will be bet­ter than some­one else’s. But there is ev­i­dence that you should pay at­ten­tion: the most imag­i­na­tive and valu­able ideas tend to come from left field, from some as­so­ciate who seems a lit­tle off­beat and may not hold an ex­alted po­si­tion in the or­gan­i­sa­tion.

6.

BE PAS­SION­ATELY CU­RI­OUS.

Con­stantly wel­come and seek out new knowl­edge, and in­sist on cu­rios­ity from those around you. Re­search has found links be­tween cu­rios­ity and many pos­i­tive lead­er­ship at­tributes, in­clud­ing emo­tional and so­cial in­tel­li­gence. Take it from Ein­stein. “I have no spe­cial tal­ent,” he claimed. “I am only pas­sion­ately cu­ri­ous.”

We can’t imag­ine that an in­di­vid­ual ex­posed to the six prin­ci­ples above and en­cour­aged to take them to heart could be­come any­thing but a bet­ter leader. How­ever, if your or­gan­i­sa­tion isn’t al­ready help­ing its lead­ers de­velop such habits of mind; let us leave you with two hum­ble, and hum­bling, sug­ges­tions. First, sub­ject your­self to a 360° re­view. Anony­mous feed­back from the peo­ple who sur­round you may con­sti­tute a mir­ror that you won’t love gaz­ing into, but as Ann Lan­ders once wrote: “Don’t ac­cept your dog’s ad­mi­ra­tion as con­clu­sive ev­i­dence that you are won­der­ful.” Well-rounded, 360° feed­back pays off in two ways. It shows you how your self­per­cep­tion de­vi­ates from oth­ers’ views of your lead­er­ship – and in lead­er­ship, per­cep­tion is re­al­ity. It also gives you a valu­able op­por­tu­nity to prac­tice re­ceiv­ing feed­back and turn­ing crit­i­cism into a plan for growth and de­vel­op­ment.

Sec­ond, get a coach. We all have blind spots, and there’s cer­tainly no shame in get­ting help for them. Fast Com­pany re­ports that 43% of CEOs and 71% of se­nior ex­ec­u­tives say they’ve worked with a coach. And 92% of lead­ers be­ing coached say they plan to use a coach again.

Re­solve to work on your own hu­mil­ity and you will be­gin to no­tice and ap­pre­ci­ate its power. In a re­cent meet­ing we con­vened in Los An­ge­les, the ac­com­plished chair­man and CEO of a ma­jor Hol­ly­wood stu­dio shared the ben­e­fit of his ex­pe­ri­ence with 20 young pro­fes­sion­als and stu­dents. What did this leader em­pha­sise to the group? He spoke of his own fail­ures, weak­nesses and blind spots and how they had spurred his learn­ing and suc­cess. The fact that he spoke about him­self in this way deeply im­pressed the group. He pro­jected con­vinc­ing self-con­fi­dence, au­then­tic­ity and wis­dom.

He was a con­vinc­ing ex­am­ple of the kind of leader our or­gan­i­sa­tions should be try­ing harder to de­velop: the kind who knows it’s bet­ter to grow a taste for hu­mil­ity now than be forced to eat hum­ble pie later.

John Dame is CEO of Dame Man­age­ment Strate­gies. Jef­frey Gedmin is CEO of the Le­ga­tum In­sti­tute.

© 2013 Har­vard Busi­ness School Pub­lish­ing Corp. © The New York Times 2013.

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