Humble Leadership

by Michael Watkins, MBA/JD, EBITDA Growth Systems

About fifteen years ago I heard a great definition for leadership that went something like this; “a leader is someone that articulates a vision of the future that is so compelling that others follow despite their current circumstances.”  This made me think about Martin Luther King, Jr. and his articulation of a vision that “…one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”  MLK’s vision was so compelling that thousands of Americans gave their lives in the pursuit of it despite their wretched circumstances.

The owners of many NTMA member companies are leading their enterprises with the same vigor and enthusiasm that the definition implies, but most are not experiencing the impact that they are seeking. When we are engaged to help figure out why there is a disconnect, the most frequent causes may be attributed to a lack of execution and a lack of humility. The reasons are simple.

Execution is the most important of all leadership traits.

According to a well-regarded Harvard Business Review (HBR) article, “a brilliant strategy, blockbuster product, or breakthrough technology can put a company on the competitive map, but only solid execution can keep it there”. A company simply must have the ability to deliver on its intent. Unfortunately, the majority of companies aren’t very good at it, by their own admission. The authors of the HBR article invited many thousands of employees (about 25% of whom came from executive ranks) to complete an online assessment of their organizations’ capabilities, a process that generated a database of 125,000 profiles representing more than 1,000 companies, government agencies, and not-for-profits in over 50 countries. Employees at three out of every five companies rated their organization weak at execution – that is, when asked if they agreed with the statement “Important strategic and operational decisions are quickly translated into action,” the majority answered no.

Humility: a modest or low view of one’s own importance.

Execution is the result of thousands of decisions made every day by employees acting according to the information they have and their own self-interest. Successful execution requires humility amongst the leadership. This makes sense because the opposite of humility is pridefulness. Employees are reticent to take risk and act on available information when prideful leadership accepts all of the credit for success and assigns blame for failures.

Imagine you articulating a vision of the future to your employees that is so compelling that they follow you despite their current circumstances of labor shortages; supply chain issues; demanding clients; non-responsive outside processors, etc. Now also imagine that you have learned to be humble and to truly value the contributions of everyone on your team. It has been our experience over and over again that in this new environment your company will begin to become “execution ninjas” capable of overcoming virtually any obstacle in their path. Best of all, increased customer satisfaction and profits typically follow closely behind.