I’ll choose "humility" for $100, Ben

>I made a comment about humility on a post on the Church of the Customer blog, and Ben McConnell asked if I believed in Jim Collins’ theory that great companies are lead by humble, quiet people. Here’s my answer:

Ben (even though I called him Ed because I misread the post…do’h) :

I try not to buy into absolutes, because as soon as you make an absolute statement, you’ll get bitten in the backside.

With that caveat, however, I’d say that humility is an admirable characteristic as long as it doesn’t come off as weak, indifferent or scared. Jim Autry seems to be a
humble man, and he successfully lead Meredith Corporation. Jesus Christ certainly wasn’t indifferent or weak or scared. Colin Powell had a very successful military career and his head still fit comfortably inside a helmet.

I’ve worked for egocentric losers and watched them succeed despite creating chaos around them: they succeed because their employees are too scared to fail. I think these leaders can build good companies. I don’t believe, however, that they can build great companies. They don’t have the empathy for others’ needs. They don’t have the patience it takes for some ideas to take hold. They don’t have the common sense to listen to someone else’s idea and work together to make it better.

On the other hand, I’ve worked with quiet, sensible, humble people and I’ve seen them fall short of greatness because they don’t have the stones to make something happen. They often keep the wrong people on the bus – to use one of Collins’ metaphors – because they don’t want to hurt them. I’ve seen otherwise sensible people make dumb decisions because they give in to big egos on the team.

So, in answer to your question, I’d rather support a humble leader than an ego-filled leader because I think the odds for success are in our favor.

An additonal thought…even the humble people have to let people off the bus, but instead of kicking them down the steps and out the door, they’ll carry their bag, help them down and give them a hug as they walk way, knowing that it’s the best thing for everybody involved. It’s a task that really got to Jim Autry.

One more thing…Ben and I left three related characteristics out of our dialogue: modest and willful; humble and fearless. Collins says great leaders are a duality of those characteristics.

As for me, I’ll choose “modest and willful” over “pretentious and willful” any day.

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