Thermonuclear Influence

Humility is the key for turning up the pace.

It’s easy to get carried away with ourselves in our heady Jobs at the Top.

We’re all susceptible to hubris, to some degree. But your degree of susceptibility depends upon your level of comfort with yourself. Getting carried away with ourselves is a greater risk if we are hiding something about who we are, and pretending to be something we’re not. If we feel we need trappings to indicate our worth, we may not be comfortable with who we are.

It took me a long time to understand this point. The people who are generally the most difficult to be around – loud, bossy, arrogant, unsympathetic, aloof, self-absorbed, ungracious – usually like themselves least. Their behaviors, which are so destructive in organizational contexts, are really mechanisms they deploy to keep people from seeing their flaws.

Why is this significant? Because organizational effectiveness exists in inverse proportion to pretensions at the top. And it’s parallel to openness and selflessness.

The prescription for turning up the pace of an organization from complacent to thermonuclear isn’t what most people think. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Panic, fear, and exhortation might get a short response, but never one that lasts. What does? Humility. Particularly when humility at the top is coupled with openness and courage. Leaders should be open to having their ideas challenged and improved upon. They must be grateful to be proven wrong, and have the courage to stand their ground, at all personal costs, for what they believe is right for their business. Everyone loves an effective leader who is humble, and they’ll do everything they can to make their humble CEO succeed, possibly because these types of leaders are so few and far between.

Humble CEOs never take themselves too seriously. They are serious about the business, yes, but not about themselves. They’re brutally committed to the needs of their businesses without letting their dedication spill over to self-importance. And they never make others feel inferior, avoiding distinctions and perks that set them above the rest.

So, how do you become such a CEO? It’s a matter of will.

It takes a willingness to see yourself at the point of the pyramid, but with the point facing down, not up! You need to see your role as setting up circumstances that allow your employees to function at their best. You need to create conditions that prime your people to give your business all they’ve got, so that they are more effective in your organization than they could be anywhere else. You want them to feel proud to be associated with your company – and proud of themselves and their roles in achieving the outcome to which you are committed.

Some of the ways I create an atmosphere of common commitment include:

• Taking a small office with nothing in it that doesn’t relate directly to my job ­– no trophies, no golf or fishing pictures.

• Touring the plant every day, and sometimes eating in the plant lunchroom.

• Wearing the company shirt, answering my own phone, and making my own coffee and copies.

• Arriving early, staying late, parking in the back of the lot, and not driving a fancy car to work.

• Looking people in the eye and remembering their names and something important about them… and taking notes when they talk.

• Listening more than talking in meetings, asking questions, summarizing others’ ideas, and doing what I say I’ll do.

• Signing Christmas and birthday cards and including a note telling people how glad I am to work with them. A thousand a year is not too many… I’ve done it and it’s worth it!

Think about how well you measure up to this standard. You and I can always do better. And everything about our businesses will be better for it.