Editor’s Note: This is the seventh in a series of articles on the A-B C’s of Leadership, outlining the characteristics for effective leadership.
Andrew Faas, Author and Activist
St. Augustine wrote: “It was pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes men as angels.”
Today we live in a world where narcissistic, self-serving, egotistical autocrats have taken control of almost every aspect of society. We have allowed this to happen and if left unchecked, these aspiring dictators will destroy Western democracy as we know it. To understand the dangers, reflect on what occurred in the early 1930s in Germany and the horrible consequences of what followed.
The business world plays a role in this cult of ego. The workplace has become a breeding ground for narcissistic leadership and, despite billions of dollars spent on diversity, harassment, motivation, sensitivity, mindfulness and other human resource programs, there has been precious little positive impact.
In “Why do CEOs fail, and what can we do about it?” in Psychology Today, Ray Williams reported that, “According to the Harvard Business Review, two out of four new CEOs fail in their first 18 months on the job. It appears that the major reason for the failure has nothing to do with competence, or knowledge, or experience, but rather with hubris and ego and a leadership style out of touch with modern times.”
This was never truer than with the bully boss. When we review the downfall of the many organizations over the last couple of decades, the bully boss was the most common culprit. I assert that the majority of North American workers work for a bully boss, which I discuss in my recent book From Bully to Bull’s-Eye: Move Your Organization out of the Line of Fire.
There’s a reason why bullies seem to reign supreme. After more than 40 years as a senior executive in the corporate world, and after conducting research for my books, articles and blogs on workplace dynamics, I have found that people who make decisions on leadership hires rarely factor humility as a prerequisite characteristic. In fact, many perversely consider humility as a weakness of character, in spite of having made previous hiring decisions that turned out badly because of the candidate’s ego and hubris.
Some of the blame lays on America’s top business schools, where the opposite of humility is engrained in the curriculum. In his book, The Golden Passport: Harvard Business School, the limits of Capitalism, and the Moral Failure of the MBA Elite, Duff McDonald outlines how Harvard Business School fell under the influence of former University of Rochester Professor Michael Janson in the 1980s. Janson wrote a paper that laid the groundwork for a seismic shift in philosophy advancing the economic theory that shareholders and must always be first and insisting that institutional investors and Wall Streeters be released from “the obligation of considering anything but their own narrow wants and needs.” I assert that this shift in philosophy legitimized the culture of power, control, greed and corruption at the expense of employees, consumers, communities and entire countries.
Contrary to what they teach at Harvard Business School, some of our greatest leaders were humble. The myth that humility is just about being nice and kind is debunked when we consider these examples.
Moses was considered the greatest biblical prophet, and Numbers 12:3 of the Bible painted a picture of man not interested in dominating others: “Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men that were upon the face of the earth.”
Take the example of President Abraham Lincoln. Dr. Russell Razzaque wrote in Psychology Today, “Abraham Lincoln is regarded by many as the virtual personification of emotional intelligence. Like few others in the corridors of history, Lincoln’s ability to regulate his emotions was the key to an emotional intelligence that produced extraordinary levels of humility.”
In her book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin captures how Lincoln gained the trust, respect and loyalty of his fiercest rivals by asking them to challenge him with opposing perspectives, rather than just surrounding himself with people who would tell him what he wanted to hear.
Perhaps the greatest example of humility, and lesson in leadership as well, was when Mohandes K. Gandhi said, “There goes my people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.”
A more recent example of humility and leadership is that of Theo Epstein, who recognized that he had to grow as a leader when he became president of the Chicago Cubs—once Major League Baseball’s punch line for any joke about perpetual losers. This recognition led the Cubs to their World Series win in 2016 after a 108-year hiatus.
His extraordinary feat was lauded in Fortune, where he made the top spot on the World’s Greatest Leader’s list, but what makes him truly remarkable is what he learned from his years with the Boston Red Sox. In his book, The Cubs Way, author and Sports Illustrated senior baseball writer Tom Verducci, describes it this way:
“Once he’d joined the Cubs, Epstein gave his scouts very specific marching orders. On every prospect he wanted the area scout to give three examples of how that player responded to adversity on the field and three examples of how that player responded to adversity off the field.”
In other words, Epstein realized the importance of character and wanted to build a psychologically healthy workplace. His previous approach with the Red Sox was more of an obsession with statistics, number-crunching and little-known niche talents, similar to the movie Moneyball, but it wasn’t sustainable. By the end of his tenure the team was falling apart. Through this he realized no amount of data could account for character and chemistry.
Describing this to Verducci, Epstein explained “If we can’t find the next technological breakthrough, well maybe we can be better than anyone else with how we treat our players and how we connect with players and the relationships we develop and how we put them in positions to succeed.”
Moses, Lincoln, Gandhi and Epstein practiced what someone once wrote: “True humility is staying teachable regardless of how much you already know.” Let us all become their students.