Why humility for a leader is not always enough
Some equate humility with weakness, whereas others argue that when it is absent, leaders lose the ability to listen – to their peers, staff, customers, constituents, congregations, friends, their closest advisors, including their own families.
Inevitably what happens is every dimension of our leadership identity and experience becomes consumed by our ego and unhealthy pride. In How the Mighty Fall And Why Some Companies Never Give In, Collins describes this as “arrogant neglect” and “hubris born of success.” He states that when it is present in leadership, the organization is in its first stage (out of five) of organizational decline.[i]
In his landmark research comparing ‘good to great’ companies with companies that failed to make the leap from good to great, he presents a framework of concepts that emerged from his research that were distinctive in the good to great companies.[ii]
One of those concepts I am focusing on in this article is Level 5 Leadership. Not merely because I think it has considerable merit, but because Collins holds it up against the popular practice of appointing ‘celebrity’ leaders who are quick to point to their messianic endeavors in building successful organisations and turning them around.
While you’ll find no-one saying vision, energy, and the ability to mobilize people is unimportant, Collins’ research says for organizations to succeed over a sustainable period of time, they must occur within a culture of discipline and the presence of Level 5 leadership.
What is Level 5 leadership? It is a blend of humility and drive for leaders, and the “incurable need to produce results” if their organizations are to become great and enduring.[iii]
What the research supports, according to Collins, is that humility cannot be a substitute for leadership skills and capabilities, and your skills as a leader cannot compensate for the absence of humility. They need to co-exist and complement one another.
Collins points to numerous examples of how many good companies failed to reach greatness simply because Level 5 leadership did not exist. In fact, in more than 75 percent of the comparison companies, executives set their successors up to fail.[iv] They wanted to believe that the organization would not have achieved the level of success it did without them at the helm, and neither would it be possible for them to maintain that success into the future without them. They may have been good leaders, and even some of the best leaders, but they were not Level 5 leaders. They were NOT great leaders!
In a culture that thrives on competition and the pursuit of achievement and accumulation of wealth and status as symbols of success, it is important to note that none of us are immune from its trappings. What we need from ourselves and from our leaders is what Collins describes as “compelling modesty” –
In contrast to the very I-centric style of the comparison leaders, we were struck by how the good-to-great leaders didn’t talk about themselves. During interviews with the good-to-great leaders, they’d talk about the company and the contributions of other executives as long as we’d like but would deflect discussion about their own contributions…it wasn’t just false modesty.[v]
This is what most followers find attractive. Yes, they get excited about great vision, well-executed strategy, being fulfilled at work, and knowing that their contributions are valued. However, what keeps them motivated is seeing grounded and humble leadership who are driven for results and what is best for the organisation, not building a monument to themselves so they can be worshipped.
That’s Level 5 leadership: a unique blend of humility and drive that gets sustainable results to help an organization become enduring. Level 5 leaders don’t feel the compelling need to talk about it to others with the expectation that others will tell them how good they are. They get the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus and go about getting the job done.
Good to Great is a book I highly recommend to every leader no matter where you work or what line of work you are in.
Glenn Williams is the CEO of Outward Looking and this article is one of many posted on his website.