Peter Drucker, widely considered the father of management, was believed to have said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” I like to add, “Humility makes the best utensil.”
Humility is a broad, mysterious, elusive term. Its connotative range runs from principles of psychology to religion to ancient story and myth, and most regard it as a positive or desirable trait.
However, in the business context, it’s not always viewed as primary or functional, but more as a peripheral lagniappe to a successful leader’s mix of skills. Think, “He’s a great leader who produces results right on schedule, and he also happens to be humble, which is a plus.” Or, “She infuses a clear sense of purpose into her team at every meeting. It doesn’t hurt that she has a humble personality as well.”
The flaw in this type of thinking is the assumption that humility is not necessarily integral to one’s success as a leader in the long term. It assumes one’s experience, technical skills and expertise are the core drivers of their success, and the more human relationship-oriented soft skills (like humility, communication and the ability to develop trust) are added features that make everything a little bit nicer.
There’s a growing body of research showing that this is the inverse of the truth when it comes to organizational health and success. The aforementioned soft skills are increasingly understood to be the core drivers of successful teams, while experience and expertise are less germane to sustained success, especially the higher a leader is in an organization. The higher you go, the more indispensable the soft skills become.
To put it more simply, humility and a lack of self-entitlement are not only correlative or indirectly associated with success in an organization — they are causative. Humility often creates the path for success.
This is illumined when one considers the effects that conceited ways of thinking and behaving can have on a leader’s progress. If a leader assumes they deserve a client’s business, it’s likely they won’t work as hard to earn it. An ego-driven leader will often carry the general assumption of a success narrative (“I’m going to become successful simply because I personally believe it”) that ironically disintegrates the resolve to work hard for success when it inevitably doesn’t happen on their terms. There’s no doubt about it: The ones who tend to succeed most are typically the ones who feel they deserve it least. It’s hard to work hard without humility.
Rohan Sheth, an acquaintance of mine and the founder of a digital marketing firm that handles over $500,000 in advertising capital each month, is a prime case study in this regard. Although he grew up in relative wealth in his home country of India, when he moved to Canada as a young man, he was forced to start from nothing. He didn’t view his world through the lens of his former life of wealth and assume he was entitled to the same circumstances in America simply because he had grown up with them. Instead, he worked his way up from an entry-level position at McDonald’s to managing — at 27 — one of the fastest-growing digital marketing firms in Canada.
“I realized very early on that I’m not entitled to anyone’s advertising dollars,” he said. “I have to consistently deliver the best work we can deliver,” Rohan told me. Rohan’s intense focus on the end product and the customer benefit his firm delivers impressed me. One indication of humility is a primary focus on the customer or client’s experience of your service, not how well your service seems to be performing financially. This nuance is subtle but crucial.
All business issues are people issues in some way. Toxicity and dysfunction in an organization can usually be traced back to issues of trust, political maneuvering, egos in conflict, and the like. Conversely, a business that runs well usually has a healthy infrastructure of trust, character, relationships and a commitment to putting others first. The implication is that any leader must learn to see their own character and ability to build trusting relationships as a business asset, something as crucial and irreplaceable as any other core competency.
Soft skills make hard numbers.
Lafitte, Jared. Humility: Your New Key Business Asset. Forbes., 2017. Forbes.com. September 7th.