Humility is underrated. As a virtue, it requires taking a modest view of one’s own importance. This doesn’t sound much like a leadership quality. It is, however, widely accepted as the one leadership quality common among the greatest leaders of all mankind.
True humility is not the same as poor self-image or self-defeating behavior. Those could be considered false humility. Insecure timidity, low self-esteem, or anxious self-concern are also examples of false humility. In fact, those qualities can make one incapable of focusing on others or the greater good. True humility enables leaders to focus on those around them, and contribute to their welfare at an even higher level.
Humility is the way to honor the bigger vision that we are working towards: the progress of all humanity. It allows us to realize that there are much bigger forces at play in the market, apart from our individual concerns, and allows us to listen with the intent to understand.
True humility requires confident self-knowledge. It requires a deep understanding of the big picture. It requires a service orientation towards the greater good without seeking personal gain.
Humility preserves the soul in tranquility and makes us patient under trials. People move fast at high growth companies, and decisions need to be made. With the open-minded nature of humility, we engender trust. We learn, adapt, do better. We can accept that there will be friction, stay calm, and treat each other with the dignity and respect we all deserve.
Keith Cunningham, my leadership mentor, advises that risk in business is inversely proportional to the perception of its existence. All leaders are one bad decision away from total calamity. The greater the perception that there is no risk, the more likely and vulnerable a business is to risk. Close-minded certainty, foolish bravado and pride were the cause of cataclysmic catastrophes at Enron, Barings Bank and Lehman Brothers.
In The Founder’s Dilemmas, Noam Wasserman distinguishes between the drives to be “Rich versus King” or the “profit” motive and the “control” motive. He says that by opening up our decision-making processes to others, we lose control. More importantly, we also build stronger businesses and experience greater rewards.
In my experience, the “profit” motive is about faith and creating abundance; the “control” motive is fear-based and about containment and constriction. Giving up existential “control” and moving strongly towards the greater vision for a better world – practicing active humility – is a quality of the best leaders. All growth and leadership require an openness to learning. The greatest leaders are voracious learners.
Humility works best in a team. When working toward a greater vision, the whole team needs to have alignment and move in that direction. It must start from the top. Hire people who practice active humility.
On leadership and on humility, one would be hard pressed to find a finer example than my friend Thilo Semmelbauer of Shutterstock. Thilo took WeightWatchers.com from zero to over $100M, and then ran all global operations for Weight Watchers (over $1.5B revenue) before I recruited him to TheLadders. I only worked with Thilo for a few months before leaving to hang up my own shingle at Dave Partners and Thilo left a few months after that to run the business at Shutterstock. In the past few years, Thilo has helped grow the Shutterstock business from $60 million to an IPO to more than $300 million in revenues. He is a leader in the true sense of the word and beloved by all.
Thilo’s success demonstrates the power of true humility: He is an active listener, totally dedicated to his team and his company, and truly open to learning from the people he works with. This has helped him to build one of the greatest success stories in New York City tech.
His humility constantly reminds me of the leadership benefits of this under-appreciated virtue, and helps me to keep my own humility intact, for the good of my company and the world we all share.
Image credit: CC by alex de carvalho