Earlier this month, Sue Shellenbarger published an article in her Work and Family column in the Wall Street Journal about research that has found that some of the best performing leaders possess an often-overlooked trait - humility. A few days later, Bill Taylor - the co-founder of Fast Company magazine - wrote about Sue’s article in HBR, asking the question “If Humility is So Important, Why are Leaders so Arrogant?” As Bill observed, sifting through headlines in the mainstream and business press would never lead one to the conclusion that humility and success belong in the same sentence; indeed, we seem to regularly lionize, praise, and worship the heroic leader, or the one who breaks all the rules, and seeks the spotlight. And while that leadership style can, and has, been very successful in disrupting industries or driving radical change, it is not usually one that helps to sustain that change over the long term. Sue Shellenbarger cites research that shows that teams led by bosses who exhibit traits of humility have lower turnover, perform better, and produce higher quality work. Just one of those benefits should be enough to cause leaders to consider the cost of arrogance, especially in our current environment of low unemployment and a growing shortfall for skilled talent.
Yet, this is not the first time that the role of humility has been found to be aligned with sustained outperformance. In his 2001 book, Good to Great, researcher and author Jim Collins stressed the essential role of humility in what he called the Level 5 Leader (and later discussed in one of HBR’s most popular articles). Collins found that the high performing companies in their study group were led by leaders who exhibited a “...paradoxical blend of of personal humility and professional will.” (1) It was not that these leaders had a complete absence of ego, it’s how they used their ego that differentiated them from others - they channeled their ambition to focus on the institution. Their overriding objective was to make their companies successful, not just themselves. And that ambition wasn’t about a short-term accomplishment. Collins found that these leaders focused intensely on creating the conditions “...for even more greatness in the next generation.” (2)
So, let’s go back to Bill’s provocative question. Are all leaders arrogant? From our experience working with clients, I can’t say that we’re finding arrogance everywhere amongst senior leaders. Ambition? Yes - those in senior leadership positions are always ambitious. You have to be to put in the kind of physical and mental effort to ascend into those jobs. And there are some leaders who need to rethink how they approach their relationships and social interactions, or redefine the role they play as their organizations and their careers evolve; but most often we find that we’re working with people who are intensely focused on making their teams and organizations successful. The challenge is figuring out how to pursue those ambitions when success is completely dependent on the experience, commitment, engagement, and expertise of everyone else in the organization. When someone has achieved success in their career based on their own expertise and individual accomplishments, and suddenly finds themselves in a role where success is based on everyone else’s expertise and accomplishments, that change in style and strategy can be challenging switch to make.
Is there a “solution” for arrogance amongst leaders? I don’t believe there’s one magic answer that will suddenly turn every arrogant leader into a humble servant leader. As with all leadership challenges, the solutions are complex and multi-faceted. As individual leaders, we need to be mindful of the fact that the most notable and memorable accomplishments are the ones that are achieved through the collective effort and commitment of many, and endure long after we’re gone.
(1) Good to Great by Jim Collins. (p. 20) Harper-Collins, 2001.
(2) Level 5 Leadership - The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve by Jim Collins. Harvard Business Review, July-August 2005.