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The humility of leaders

By Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove

Humility is not a word often associated with modern leaders. Indeed, a humble leader is almost a contradiction in terms. But it shouldn’t be.

‘A leader should be humble. A leader should be able to communicate with his people. A leader is someone who walks out in front of his people, but he doesn’t get too far out in front, to where he can’t hear their footsteps,’ observed Tommy Lasorda, a player and manager of the LA Dodgers.

The great Indian-born business thinker C. K. Prahalad was a strong advocate of leadership humility. Talking with C. K. shortly before his premature death in 2010, he discussed leadership and the necessary characteristics of the new generation of leaders. ‘I think humility is a good start,’ he said:

I think we got to a point where if you want to be a leader you had to be arrogant. No. First, leadership is about hope, leadership is about change and leadership is about the future. And if you start with those three premises, I want leaders who are willing to listen because the future is not clear. People who can only tell you about the past because there’s certainty about the past are not showing leadership. With the future, there’s not much certainty, so you have to listen and bring in multiple perspectives.

C. K. was a naturally humble man and one who listened. On a number of occasions we filmed interviews with him. At the end of every one he talked to the cameramen and sound engineers to see what they thought. He wasn’t overly concerned about whether the lighting had shown up some physical blemish or whether his tie was straight. What concerned him was whether what he had said had made sense to them. If he had made them pay attention and if they had understood his arguments, then he was doing his job.

Like any natural teacher, C. K. had a gift for storytelling, of using apt and easily understood metaphors and comparisons. This is how he explained his take on leadership when we spoke to him:

Let me use a metaphor. I look at good leaders as sheepdogs. Good sheepdogs have to follow three rules. One, you can bark a lot, but don’t bite. Number two, you have to be behind, you cannot be ahead of the sheep. Number three, you must know where to go and don’t lose the sheep.

If you think about leadership it’s about consensus building, because when you have stakeholders, if you have to worry about cocreation, you must listen and you must build consensus. You can have multiple conversations, but it’s equal to bark a lot but don’t bite. People who tell you things which are different may be more valuable than people who agree with you because, like the old saying, if you can bark yourself, why have a dog? If all the people agree with you then why have so many people? You already know the answer. So dissent is an integral part of understanding what the new leader will look like.

And you must have a point of view of the future. You cannot lead unless you have a point of view. And most leaders do not have a point of view or if they have it they don’t express it clearly. Increasing shareholder wealth cannot be a point of view about the future. It’s incidental to doing the right things.

C. K. Prahalad’s ideas chime with our times – especially in the wake of the financial crisis and resulting global depression. They are also echoed by the work of Jim Collins, author of the 2001 bestseller Good to Great (and co-author of the 1994 bestseller Built to Last). Collins champions a combination of selflessness, humility and iron will. These leaders are usually ‘quiet leaders’ and not the larger-than-life figures, the charismatic heroes much feted by Wall Street and the City. For leadership, humility is the final frontier.

Collins introduced a new term to the leadership lexicon to describe this type of leader – Level 5 leadership. Going through the skills at each level, Level 1 is about individual capability, someone who uses their knowledge and talent to contribute to the organization. Level 2 is about team skills and working with a group effectively. At Level 3 a person exhibits managerial competence, they can get people organized towards shared goals. Level 4 is leadership in the conventional non-Jim Collins sense, they articulate vision and stimulate performance.

At the top level is Level 5. Level 5 is great, while Level 4 leaders are merely good.

According to Collins, humility is a key ingredient of Level 5 leadership. His simple formula is Humility + Will = Level 5. ‘Level 5 leaders are a study in duality’, notes Collins, ‘modest and willful, shy and fearless.’ Level 5 leaders display a number of distinct attributes. Although instrumental in achieving great results, they never brag about it, preferring to avoid the limelight.

They are resolute about the organization’s objectives but do not motivate through force of personality in a charismatic sense, but through demonstrating principles and standards. While panning for sustained success they are happy and even keen to organize an effective successor.

When thing go wrong, they do not pass the buck. Instead they are happy to shoulder the burden of responsibility. And when things go well, then are quick to praise others and acknowledge the contributions of their team.

Change your perspective of leadership to adopt a Level 5 view of the world and the talent map of the organization changes. Level 5 leaders can be found inside most organizations. The problem is the cult of the heroic leader that permeates the business world and much further afield.

The questions for the leader raised by the issue of humility are many and varied. In the end they can be distilled down to whether they get a buzz from the achievements of others or solely from their own.


C. K. Prahalad’s most important book is The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid (Wharton Press, 2004). It helped reconfigure views of the poorest people in emerging markets.
It is worth reading Jim Collins’ Good To Great: Why Some Companies Make The Leap… And Others Don’t (HarperBusiness, 2001) and seeking out his Harvard Business Review article ‘Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve’ (January, 2001).

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