(Note: This is the latest in a continuing series of posts on Leadership. I am a constantly learning 25-year student of Leadership and am happy to share my ideas, experiences and knowledge – please visit my Leadership tab for other posts on this topic)
If there’s any silver lining in our current economic meltdown, you can find it in the newspapers and online. It’s the return of humility.
Excessive hubris has always been one of the fatal flaws of leadership, and it’s been displayed in abundance by many a CEO out there, as they made wild and reckless bets that have come up snake eyes.
It’s as if all of these executives ignored the existing conventional wisdom of achieving sustained business greatness – the blend of will and humility Jim Collins refers to in his book “Good to Great” as “Level 5 leadership” – in the misguided belief that they alone had all the answers, and that any show of restraint, or for that matter, expansion of the inner circles to thoughtfully and inclusively debate and discuss strategy and vision, and risk and reward, and the long term versus the short term, was nothing more than a waste of time.
The additional problem was that our business and financial culture had also developed an alarming tendency to “lionize” these high powered, ego driven, status-conscious and materialistic leaders, treating them with (largely) unearned respect and blind trust.
Take Bernie Madoff, for example. Frank Rich recently quoted one of his victims as saying “We gave him everything. We thought he was God“. Easy money was to be found in the corridors of financial power. $10,000 wastebaskets? Five-Star hotel junkets? Who cares as long as I get my own double-digit returns relying on their “expertise”.
Now the denouement has come – and it has arrived with hurricane force. Everyone has been humbled by the voracity of the downturn – that is, everyone except those who paid themselves billions of bonuses even though their companies were insolvent. But even they are now taking a bite of humble pie, because the world has now fundamentally changed.
And changed for the good. Some lessons are harder than others, and this one is a doozy, to be sure. Humility means admitting we don’t have all the answers – heck, we probably don’t even know all the questions (like the ones about the propriety of credit default swaps, for example).
Great leaders know this – it’s in their DNA. It’s being brave enough to have teammates that are not just “yes men” or venerators, and maybe are even smarter than they are. It’s using “we” and casting aside “I”. It’s about decency, fairness, and mindfulness. It’s Container Store instead of Neiman Marcus.
It’s not all about you.
It takes humility to know that we are not masters of our universe. There are so many things that are out of our control. Every action can certainly have an equal and opposite reaction. We are not gods. We are not infallible.
While I certainly wish that this badly needed societal sense of perspective could have been divined through less painful means, I look forward with a great sense of optimism, because I believe the companies that will survive and thrive in a post-downturn world will be led by a new generation of ‘Level 5s” – relentlessly and humbly pursuing renewed greatness and growth.
Welcome back, humility. We really missed you. Please make yourself at home and stay a long, long, long while.