29th March, 2019
We’ve all worked for someone who can’t get enough of himself. He probably loved to talk but never seemed to truly listen. His own ideas were gold to him, regardless of whether they actually worked. Seeing his name in print made his day like nothing else ever could (and, by the way, getting lots of publicity is not the goal of effective personal branding). The problem isn’t just that these leaders are tough to be around. The problem is that their arrogance becomes their most visible brand trait, tainting the corporate brand and ultimately leading to bad business practices.
The internet is littered with stories of entrepreneurs whose egos destroyed their business. Dave Balter, serial entrepreneur and investor, admits his arrogance almost tanked his fourth startup, BzzAgent. At clothing company Warnaco, former CEO Linda Wachner’s ego reportedly drove off the company’s best talent and resulted in a lawsuit filed against Warnaco by Calvin Klein for selling its products to unlicensed retailers.
To be fair to Balter and Wachner, part of the problem is business culture. Executives fear that humility will be perceived as insecurity, indecisiveness or even servility. But humility is the essence of effective servant leadership. Leaders who make it their mission to serve their teams encourage autonomy, ownership and constructive failures – all of which are aligned with positive brand traits.
For anyone trying to build a “great” company, humility is nonnegotiable. In Good to Great, James Collins shares management research showing that humble leadership, in addition to driven leadership, is one of two top indicators of company success.
The Hard Work of Humility
The first step of practicing humility is also the toughest: admitting your ego is getting in the way. Once you’ve done that, the following acts of humility become easier:
1. Let team members label themselves.
If you’ve worked for a leader with a large head, you’ve seen skirmishes over job titles. This person probably insisted on being recognized as “CEO and founder” in all communications while assigning junior-level titles to everyone else.
The problem with that, Dr. Saqib Qureshi notes in his recently released book, Reconstructing Strategy: Dancing With the God of Objectivity, is that it alienates team members by highlighting their inferiority in an artificial hierarchy. Qureshi points to the meeting of Buzz and Woody in the Disney classic Toy Story. When Woody describes Buzz as “just a toy,” Buzz curtly responds he’s a space ranger charged with protecting the universe.
The exchange starts their relationship off on a tense note, threatening a partnership that would later prove key to protecting Andy, who owns both Buzz and Woody. Buzz doesn’t feel like an integral part of the team until Woody accepts the way Buzz sees himself and realizes the importance of the space ranger’s role. This is also a good illustration of the fact that corporations need to give all team members an opportunity to express their personal brands and weave them into their roles as corporate ambassadors.
2. Ask subordinates for their feedback.
Because executives tend to be high performers, they often fall under the ego-driven misconception that they don’t need others’ help. Leaders who solicit feedback, however, don’t just improve their own performance; they encourage others to outperform, too. Research published in Administrative Science Quarterly confirms that actions associated with humility, including soliciting feedback, generated higher levels of engagement and performance from direct reports.
Jeff Hyman, chief talent officer at Strong Suit Executive Search, says he’s seen this effect firsthand with a CEO who was criticized early in his career for creating polished work without consulting others. Despite the strength of his work, he received limited support because he didn’t seek feedback from stakeholders. To get buy-in, the CEO learned he had to engage others early and often, reach consensus, and credit others when sharing his work with the board.
3. Emphasize leadership development.
John Quincy Adams famously observed, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” Adams recognized that effective leaders think beyond themselves. When their time as CEO is up, they wonder, who will carry the company forward? Humble leaders ask what they can do today to prepare the company for tomorrow.
Gideon Hicks, a certified financial planner at Summit Planning Group, points out that leadership planning is a key focus at the nation’s most desirable workplaces. Google, one of three companies to make Glassdoor’s top 100 list of the best places to work in every iteration of the report, broke into the top 10 only after it implemented a leadership development team. Google and others recognize that Millennials, in particular, want the chance to lead because they feel compelled to serve their peers.
4. Seek and implement others’ innovation ideas.
There’s never just one route to innovation, and seldom is the best path discovered by people at the top. Great leaders look to those who do the work, day in and day out, for advice on how to improve the company. Poor ones push their own ideas ahead while downplaying team members’ suggestions.
To understand just how big a difference those leadership choices make, consider the story of Standard Chartered. When Jungkiu Choi moved from Singapore to China for his new role as head of the company’s consumer banking division, he did something that stunned branch managers. Instead of pressuring them to cut costs during his site visits, Jungkiu asked employees how he could improve their branches.
Thanks to Jungkiu’s humble leadership, Standard Chartered’s customer satisfaction increased by 54 percent, while customer complaints fell by 28%. Most impressively, the bank’s employee attrition rate plummeted from the highest of China’s foreign banks to the lowest.
Those at the top of the company totem pole often forget just how much value “lower-level” workers bring to the table. Simply by asking for input and treating others with dignity, leaders can transform the way their teams see, treat, and perform with each other – sowing the seeds for growth while nurturing a reputation for excellence.