Humility: A Critical Ingredient In The Recipe For Leadership Success

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Tough guy Ernest Hemingway, arguably one of the finest novelists of the 20th century, was a seasoned student of human behavior.

He knew what “works” in bringing out the worst and the best in people. And he left us with a thought-provoking observation that should be seriously considered by every leader at every level in every organization.

“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man,” Hemingway said. “True nobility is being superior to your former self.”

Ours is an age when so many so-called “leaders” invest much of their energy in loud and outlandish “hey, look at me!” behavior. So much good could be accomplished if they would take a deep breath, seriously consider opposing views, and acknowledge that it’s perfectly okay when someone else is the smartest person in the room.

That’s the view of Bill Treasurer and John R. Havlik, authors of The Leadership Killer: Reclaiming Humility in An Age of Arrogance.

Treasurer is the bestselling author of multiple books on leadership and founder of Giant Leap Consulting. Havlik is a retired U.S. Navy SEAL who led special operations teams around the world during his 31-year military career.

Rodger Dean Duncan: Despite a lot of high-profile case studies that underscore the heavy price that can be paid for misbehavior, the workplace still has its (un)fair share of jerk bosses. Why?

Bill Treasurer: There are many different styles of leaders. Yet one consistently reveals itself through its jerky behavior. Let’s call that style The Dominant One. Socially dominant leaders often rise to positions of authority through the force of their personality. People follow them because they carry themselves with greater confidence, and because they do, in fact, get results. The Dominant One’s motto is: If you’re not part of the bulldozer, you’re part of the pavement!

Because dominant leaders often get results, they are enabled by shareholders and boards of directors to have free reign.

John R. Havlik: I’ll add that because they often use fear and intimidation to dominate those lower on the organizational food chain, they get away with their obnoxious misbehavior. No one wants to confront or challenge them lest they be met with retribution. Their unquestioned rulership results in a wake of wreckage too, in the form of low morale, lack of loyalty, high attrition, suboptimal performance, etc.

Duncan: You say that hubris is the number one killer of leadership because it damages both the leader and the people being led. Give us your layman’s definition of hubris, plus an example of how it causes damage.

Treasurer: The word “hubris” comes from ancient Greece and the layman’s definition is dangerous overconfidence. Being confident is a good thing, and followers want leaders who exude confidence. But there’s a point at which confidence can slip into arrogance. When that happens, a leader’s ego may cause them to minimize the input or judgment of others, and convince them that they are the smartest, most important person in the room. Hubris happens when a leader’s self-confidence swells to the point where they believe they can outsmart any risk, danger, or competitor, and they deem themselves irreplaceable to the organization.

Duncan: What kind of questions should leaders ask themselves as they decide how to exercise the power of their positions?

Treasurer: The first question a leader should ask is: How will I use my leadership power? Leadership comes with power, and that power should be directed toward worthy goals and results. But power can be misused. In the case of the hubristic leaders, the accumulation of power and entitlement causes them to believe that they are more important than the mission of the organization. Lord Acton said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Havlik: The second question a leader should ask is: Am I being the leader those I am leading need me to be? First and foremost, leaders must be the organization’s role models of integrity, principles, values, and honesty.

A leader’s performance is judged by the quality and endurance of the results they get. But it’s ultimately the people being influenced by the leader who make those results happen. The best indication that a leader is doing a great job is to look at the morale, performance, and results of the followers. Given that, it’s important for leaders to constantly consider whether they are leading in a way that is deserving of the followers’ loyalty and dedication.

Duncan: What are the early warning signs that an otherwise well-intentioned leader is starting to become tainted by hubris?

Treasurer: One way we recommend is to watch how people react when they are put into new leadership role. One CEO told us that he watches for whether people grow or swell. Meaning, do they try to grow by learning as much as they can about their new role by asking lots of questions of people at every level, seeking out wise mentors, and experimenting with new ideas and approaches, or do they swell by talking louder, dismissing people in lower-ranking roles, and becoming bigheaded.

Duncan: How does unbridled hubris affect organizational issues like morale, performance, and engagement?

Treasurer: Interestingly, we originally titled the book The Leadership Killers, because we felt there were numerous things that could kill a leader’s effectiveness. But the more we wrote, the more we realized that everything was connecting back to hubris. The bigger a leader’s ego, the lower morale gets because people start to recognize that the leader cares more about himself than the people being led. As morale goes down, so too does performance. As performance goes down, people’s loyalty to the leader (and organization) plummets.

Havlik: Ultimately, a hubris-infected leader damages not only the performance of everyone, but himself. The biggest self-inflicted damage is to the legacy of the leader, because of the lost potential of the results, loyalty, and admiration the leader could have gotten had they not succumbed to their own temptations of power and hubris.

Duncan: You say that self-leadership prevents hubris. What mindsets and behaviors are required for effective self-leadership?

Havlik: While writing our book, we interviewed some leaders we admire. Most interviews were done by phone, but one person we traveled to interview was Vice Admiral John Ryan, USN (Ret). He was president and CEO of the Center for Creative Leadership, and earlier served as the Superintendent (president) of the U.S. Naval Academy, and chancellor of the State University of New York schools. So, he’s got the chops! His pedigree is deep with genuine practical leadership experience.

We spent hours talking with John about the importance of self-leadership and the dangers of hubris. Here’s a quote that we loved so much we included it in the book, “You need to lead and manage yourself before you can effectively lead and manage others. Genuine humility is impossible without it, and a leader can easily slip into hubris.”

Duncan: There’s no doubt that a leader’s primary job is to develop other leaders. To what effect does a leader’s hubris short-circuit the success with that responsibility?

Treasurer: The first law of leadership is this: It’s not about you, it’s about the mission and people you lead!

A leader’s job is to develop future leaders, to provide them with skill-enriching opportunities, and activate their own leadership potential. Leaders are supposed to serve the people they’re leading by enlarging their skills, lifting their standards, removing barriers to their success, and helping them achieve stellar results. Hubris does just the opposite! It shifts the focus to the acquisition of more individual power, amassing more individual wealth, and demanding unquestioned loyalty from everybody else! Hubristic leaders are all about themselves.

Duncan: When faced with leaders who clearly don’t see the damage their own behavior is having on their effectiveness, what can people do to offer honest feedback in a way that’s most likely to elicit an appreciative and productive response?

Havlik: It’s a tricky situation, and you need to be careful of how you do it, else face possible wrath of the Dominant One!

Treasurer: We encourage people to have a sober one-on-one conversation with the leader about their expectations. For example, ask “Do you need me to be an unquestioned ‘yes person’?” Practically all leaders will say “no” they don’t want to be surrounded by yes-people. Taking advantage of the leader’s answer, people should next say, “You have my total commitment, and I promise I won’t be a sycophant. But I anticipate occasions where I’ll need some coaching from you. How should I approach and communicate with you when I have something to say to you that you may not want to hear?”

In other words, get coaching from the leader themselves about how to disagree with them, or how to deliver bad news. Once they’ve coached you and when you must deliver a tough message to the boss, you can preface it by referencing the promise you made and the coaching they gave you. Something like, “Remember when you made it clear that you didn’t want me to be a ‘yes-person’ and then you coached me on how to deliver sensitive information to you? I have some information that I need to share with you …”

Havlik: When you use that approach, you’re loyally communicating to the leader according to the ground rules they themselves put in place, thus they’ll be more receptive to your message!



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