From the book A Leader's Code by Donovan Campbell. Copyright © 2013 by Donovan Campbell. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.
Let's look more closely at why humility, properly understood, is so important for a leader. First, this virtue serves as a necessary counterbalance to a driving sense of mission. Few, if any, people choose to advance causes that they believe are inherently evil. Few leaders make it a goal to become increasingly more immoral with each passing day, or to make their name synonymous with all that is wrong with humanity. Even the monsters of history – Stalin, Hitler, Robespierre, Jim Jones, etc. – started with what they truly believed was a righteous cause. Winston Churchill himself believed that Vladimir Ilyich Lenin promoted communism with humanity's best interests at heart, that "his sympathies [were] cold and wide as the Arctic Ocean."
And that is precisely the problem with passionate leaders who pursue their mission without humility. They risk destroying that which they would save. They are prone to justifying any means that will bring about their noble end – even if that means goes against all commonly accepted human decency. With no one to check them, and with no desire to be checked, a little evil for a great good becomes an acceptable trade-off. Once a little evil is acceptable, then the dam is breached and a lot of evil becomes routine. Those who stand in the way, be they individuals or whole classes of people, become acceptable losses in the quest for a salvific goal that will redeem all of humanity.
For example, to create asociety characterized by liberty, equality, and fraternity, French revolutionary leader Robespierre beheaded thousands of reactionaries. To take from each according to his means and give to each according to his needs, Stalin starved, slaughtered, exiled, and imprisoned millions. To create an agrarian utopia, Pol Pot murdered a third of Cambodia's citizens and told them, "To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss." The more an arrogant leader seeks to bring heaven to earth, the greater the likelihood that they will create a terrestrial hell.
However, a humble leader is far less likely to take their mission to immoral, illegal, or illogical extremes, because humble leaders are far more likely to see themselves just as they are – warts and all – and convince others to see them the same way. Instead of being surrounded by sycophants who will praise their every decision no matter how evil, humble leaders are likely to surround themselves with true friends who will tell them hard truths when they need to hear them, particularly when the mission needs a serious course correction.
Jack Welch, the famously successful CEO of General Electric, once quipped that a business leader would be lucky if 60 per cent of their decisions were correct. Humility helps keep leaders from harming themselves and others with the other 40 per cent. "Faithful are the wounds of a friend," says the book of Proverbs, "but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful." Humble leaders will not only seek out friendly wounds but also enable and encourage their friends to wound them. Humility, therefore, keeps a leader in check and their mission intact.
Humility also allows a leader to be self-reflective. I was very fortunate to have Nitin Nohria, now dean of Harvard Business School, as my leadership professor when I attended there. Over dinner one evening, Nitin told me that of all of the studies the department had done on various types of leaders – intellectual versus emotional, executional versus strategic,etc. – he and his researchers could find only one quality that the successful ones shared. That quality was reflectiveness. Nitin was initially surprised – surely there was something else, like charisma, that also predicted success. But there wasn't. No matter what they tried, Nitin and his team could find just that one common trait.
Whether because of natural personality or deliberate training, all of the successful leaders in the Harvard study reflected regularly on themselves – their successes and failures, their strengths and weaknesses. They often diagnosed their own problems before anyone else did. Without humility, though, it is impossible to be self-reflective. How can we acknowledge weaknesses and mistakes if we are not at all concerned with seeing ourselves as we truly are? Humility is the necessary virtue for all of us if we want to self-assess accurately, if we want to be the ones to change course when necessary, before circumstances force our hand.
Humility also accelerates the pace at which we learn from mistakes, which accelerates the pace of learning and thus of innovation. Everyone makes them. Leaders typically make more than most – after all, they have increased scope for decision-making – and their mistakes typically affect more people. Humility, however, allows a leader to fail in small ways rather than large ones. Spectacular mistakes and awesome blunders do not happen in a vacuum.They are usually preceded by minor failures and small misjudgments, each one building upon the next because the leader remains unchecked and their words remain unchallenged. Eventually, the mistakes get so big, and the failures so pronounced, that some external force steps in – whether friends, family, the boss, or the law – to take the reins. …
In addition to accelerating the learning process, humility allows the best ideas of an organization to bubble up to the surface. If a team feels that its leader will take input from everywhere, even if that input directly contradicts the leader's own assessments, then a team will be much more likely to float its ideas in the hopes of having them enacted. However, if a team feels that a leader will brook no contradiction, then its initiatives wither. What's the point of giving input if it's never acted upon? Better to save the effort, keep your head down, and put in the minimum work needed to just get by. An arrogant leader will always have a disconnected and disenfranchised team. A humble leader, on the other hand, will have a team that is engaged in finding solutions to problems and better ways to do things, for they will be accustomed to seeing good ideas put into practice to make a difference.
The "soft" virtue of humility, therefore, has some very "hard" practical consequences. A team will find that the rate at which it produces ideas and products is significantly accelerated. An organization with humility at its core will almost certainly be able to iterate more quickly than its competitors, which means that it will almost certainly be more innovative, too. What is more, deliberate humility is likely to increase the quality of both products and ideas. Paradoxically, the virtue that is often deliberately shunned by leaders and by leadership theory is the one virtue that can accelerate two of the very things they seek most: innovation and quality.