I recently sat with the HR director of a leading American pharmaceutical company, and we talked about potential candidates for one of their key executive positions in Japan. The inevitable happened, and we started to discuss personalities and the styles of leaders of European, Japanese, and American pharmaceutical companies. Then, he paused mid-sentence, placed his pen on the table, and said, “You know, Philip, what all these leaders have in common?” He continued without waiting for an answer: “They are all humble. They are humble not in a ‘less than’ way, but they are all grounded, and they have a sense of who they are.” He went on to explain that humility is an oft-misunderstood word. “Real leaders clearly recognize who and what they are and attempt to strive for greatness for their companies. Above all, they understand their deficiencies.”
The director’s insights into leadership are supported by Jim Collins in his book Good to Great where he explains that one of the keys of leadership is genuine personal humility blended with intense professional will. This is counter to what the media and pop culture portray, which is a Gordon Gekko type of win-at-all-costs character. According to Collins, a real leader creates lasting change, shies away from the limelight, and practices what David Packard, the co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, did. Packard, according to Collins, defined himself as an HP man first and as a CEO second. He was a man of the people, practicing management by walking around. Shunning all manner of publicity, Packard is quoted as saying: “You shouldn’t gloat about anything you’ve done; you ought to keep going and find something better to do.”
Warren Buffett is widely regarded as one of the most successful investors of all time. Although not shy of the media in recent times, he has a wonderful self-effacing sense of humor. When asked by a journalist about his legendary reputation of being a cheapskate and why he didn’t dress better, Buffett replied, “I buy expensive suits; they just look cheap on me.”
Leaders also understand that life and success involve a degree of luck. Buffett explains, “I happen to have a talent for allocating capital. But my ability to use that talent is completely dependent on the society I was born into. If I’d been born into a tribe of hunters, this talent of mine would be pretty worthless. I can’t run very fast. I’m not particularly strong. I’d probably end up as some wild animal’s dinner.” An interesting anomaly is that often it’s the people in the highest positions or those who are clearly on the fast track who rank higher on the humility scale.
Humility may be the key ingredient in leadership. It characterizes those leaders who acknowledge that they didn’t do everything to get that new drug application, they didn’t single-handedly increase sales by 20%, they were a part of a team, and even if they were the leaders, they had the help of many other capable individuals. These are the people that others gravitate to.
Truly great leaders admit their mistakes. Warren Buffett’s famous annual letters to his Berkshire Hathaway shareholders tell the tales of his biggest investing mistakes. He doesn’t shirk from them; he admits them, quickly and clearly. Great leaders are happy to eat humble pie and give the credit to others.