Humble Leaders – An Oxymoron?

Someone once told me I was too polite to be a great leader. Asking people to do stuff and saying ‘please’ was apparently not a sign of setting strong direction and providing uncontested leadership. ‘Women often do that… apologising for giving orders’ they continued. Their argument was that ‘please’ opens things up for discussion and that is the one thing you don’t want when leading people.. apparently.

To me this conversation was a leaf out of ‘command-and-control-R-us’ school of management thinking, where the presumption is that none of your reportees will have relevant, or even useful input to whatever direction you are setting. A way of behaving, which is further augmented by the ‘knowledge-is-power’ mentality of not freely sharing available information, but hoarding it instead to gain an advantage later.

Can we even recognise the appropriate traits in our leaders?
Interestingly, when asked her sentiments after the verdicts of Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling, Sherron Watkins, the Enron whistle-blower, stammered something about being satisfied that justice prevailed, but unable to put into words the sense of sadness of what could have been. (Time Magazine, June 5, 2006). She openly wonders if we recognise and value the appropriate traits in our leaders. As she puts it: “We want honest leaders, who are decisive, creative, optimistic and even courageous, but we so easily settle for talk that marks those traits instead of action. Worse, we often don’t even look for one of the most critical traits of a leader: humility. A humble leader listens to others. He or she values input from employees and is ready to hear the truth, even if it’s bad news. Humility is marked by an ability to admit mistakes.”

Level 5 Leadership
An excellent report in the Harvard Business Review by Jim Collins Level 5 Leadership – The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve seems to support this. Collins argues that the key ingredient that allows a company to become great is having a Level 5 leader: an executive in whom genuine personal humility blends with intense professional will. These leaders attend to people first, strategy second. As Collins puts it ‘ they get the right people on the bus, move the wrong people off, usher the right people to the right seats – and then they figure out where to drive it.” Level 5 leaders also confront the most brutal facts of their current reality and take full responsibility for it, yet simultaneously maintain that they will prevail in the end. They hold both disciplines – faith and facts – at the same time, all the time. Instead of lurching back and forth with radical change programs, reactionary moves and restructurings, level 5 leaders also maintain a relentless, but consistent push forward until momentum takes care of the rest.

The Hedgehog Concept
Ultimately, Collins identifies what he calls the ‘Hedgehog’ concept to be behind the level 5 leaders’ stewardship of companies that have managed to transform from good to great. The concept actually stems from a famous essay by the philosopher and scholar Isaiah Berlin, where he describes two approaches to thought and life using a simple parable: The fox knows a little about many things, but the hedgehog knows only one big thing very well. The fox is complex, the hedgehog simple. And the hedgehog wins. Collins’ research shows that breakthroughs require a simple, hedge-hog like understanding of three intersecting circles: what a company can be best in the world at, how its economics work best, and what best ignites the passions of its people. Breakthroughs happen when you get the hedgehog concept and become systematic and consistent with it, eliminating virtually anything that does not fit in the three circles.

A Culture of Discipline
Collins puts emphasis on level 5 leaders’ ability to engender a culture of discipline: disciplined people, disciplined thought and disciplined action. When you have disciplined people, you don’t need hierarchy. When you have disciplined thought, you don’t need bureaucracy. When you have disciplined action, you don’t need excessive controls. When you combine a culture of discipline with an ethic of entrepreneurship, you get the magical alchemy of great performance.

The Yin and Yang of Level 5
Collins identifies these as personal humility mixed with professional will. Personal humility demonstrates a compelling modesty, shunning public adulation and never boastful. A level 5 leader acts with quiet, calm determination and relies on inspired standards rather than charisma to motivate. S/he channels ambition into the company, not the self and sets up successors for even more greatness in the next generation. Level 5 leaders take responsibility themselves for poor results, never blaming other people, external factors or bad luck. The professional will of level 5 leaders is demonstrated by an unwavering resolve to do whatever must be done to produce the best long-term results, no matter how difficult. S/he also looks to apportion credit for the success of the company to other people, external factors and good luck.

Do these leaders exist? Jim Collins thinks so and in his fantastic report spanning 5 years of research into what makes companies consistently great, he not only identifies the key factors, but also gives us examples of leaders who have done it. This gives me hope. And determination to not only aim to be one myself one day (I can hope!), but also hope that I will be blessed by working for such a leader. Truly inspired!

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Anonymous says:

    The use of Hedgehog and Foxes in this post is at direct odds to what Isaiah Berlin was talking about.
    Berlin’s Hedgehog was a metaphor for zealtory and single-mindedness – only the Fox could accept the presence of things outside his ideology.
    I will quote wikipedia – but recommend reading the entire essay. Its clear that Berlin thought higher of Foxes than Hedgehogs.
    He then contrasts Tolstoy to other authors and intellectuals of his time, called hedgehogs, who frequently displayed a fanatical adherence to one big idea, at the exclusion of possible objections and alternatives to that idea.

  2. Cecilia says:

    Thank you for bringing this to my attention. It seems Collins’ use of metaphor here may be a little skewed. However, I recommend reading his original article, referenced earlier in this post as I get the feeling he uses the hedgehog and fox-concept to illustrate the commitment to the cause showed by the level 5 leaders he came across in his study.
    It may very be that Berlin thought higher of the foxes than the hedgehog as to my mind fanaticism comes to mind when you explain the hedgehog in the context of Berlin’s essay and that may very well also be at the heart of what Collins means when trying to explain the conviction that drives these leaders.
    Thanks for your input and here’s the link to the wikipedia articles you mention:

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