Transcript of Why is it Difficult for Some CEOs to be Humble?

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Welcome to this month's edition of Great Leaders Build Great Leadership Teams webinar series. This is episode number 16, and the topic is, Why is it Difficult for Some CEOs or Some Leaders to be Humble?

So, let's start with a challenge. Excuse me. The challenge is, humility is not necessarily a quality that is celebrated much in leaders. It's not necessarily cited very much in work on great leaders. It is with more frequency in the last decade or so, but not in general. The interesting thing is that many recent ... by recent I mean 15-20 years ... studies have determined that humility is an essential leadership characteristic. And I'll cite a few of these studies and you will have access to these links to these studies, or reference materials when you get the slides after today's webinar.

The first is from From Good to Great, if you remember Collins' level five leaders, our humility is a critical, critical component of that. Another good study I saw is the study called Do Humble CEOs Matter?, which again cited that humility is a really important factor contributing to great leadership teams. And the final is by, I'm sure many of you have heard about Hogan Assessments. And so, Dr. Robert Hogan talks a lot about the fact that humility is a strong characteristic in the best leaders that they have assessed. So, the challenge is not necessarily celebrated but many studies have determined that humility is an essential leadership characteristic.

Let's talk a little bit about ... Let's define our terms here a little bit in terms of what is humility? Humility, from Webster's, freedom from pride or arrogance. The quality or state of being humble. Okay. And so, in business terms, that sort of ... We've sort of summarized that into a few things. We believe that humble leaders work for the good of organizations rather than just to progress themselves. Great or humble leaders are good at receiving feedback and acknowledge their mistakes. They will make shifts in direction if necessary. And ultimately, they create leadership team environments where productive dialog can thrive.

And for those of you that are new to our webinars, productive dialogue is really at the heart of the great leadership teams that we've worked with over the last 10 years. Productive dialog just simply means great leadership teams are able to challenge, debate, confront each other on the most important things that are facing them, the most important issues that they're dealing with, and they're able to move those things forward in a productive way leaving minimal relational scars. So, a leader who is humble is more likely to create an environment where that can thrive.

I just found in my search ... I wrote, and at the end of this too, I'll give you a link to it ... I wrote an article for Chief Executive Magazine on why humility is so important for CEOs. And since then, in preparation for the webinar today, I found a really cool graphic from this woman, Sara Peck who is a, I think she's a wellness coach. And it really got to the heart of what we believe that humility is all about. And it demonstrates the paradox of these two complimentary, seemingly not, but complementary terms of humility and confidence.

In fact, these two complements of humility and confidence were sort of the foundation of what Jim Collins referred to as level five leaders. On the essence of this, it's pretty straightforward but confidence without humility can be arrogance. And humility with confidence is over self-deprecation. No one is arguing that self-deprecation is a bad thing by itself. But over self-deprecation.

And so, the humility that we're talking about here is the balance between maintaining our confidence or our ambition and being able to be humble enough and be vulnerable enough to admit when we're wrong, admit mistakes, ask questions, those types of things. So, balance is a huge theme throughout the course of this conversation that we're about to have.

And again, anyone have any questions about anything that I've raised so far? If you do, please don't hesitate to ask.

Okay, so, what does lack of humility look like. I think that's an important construct to think about. And while I didn't ... I'm noticing that I didn't note where I got these comments from, or these points from, Marshall Goldsmith has a great book that I refer to and use and hand out to every CEO that I work with called What Got You Here Won't Get You There, and it's how successful people become even more successful.

And when I started thinking about this balance from the previous slide of confidence and humility and when those things are overdone, or when you get out of balance, I thought immediately of the 20 bad habits that Goldsmith talks about in his book, What Got You Here Won't Get You There.

And so, what is lacking in humility look like when it's out of balance on the arrogance side? It's always having to be right. Adding too much value in every situation. Starting your responses with no, but, or however. Making sure that everyone in the room knows how smart we are. Not being a great listener, being a great teller and a great expressor of your own thoughts, but not really doing a great job listening and really seeking to understand other people's perspectives. Another piece of arrogance is failing to express gratitude.

And so, lack of humility when ... I'm just going to go back to this other slide here. When confidence, overconfidence, or too much ambition without humility is arrogance, these things have a tendency of rearing their ugly heads.

Does this mean that you're a bad person if you have a tendency sometimes to want to add your value or sometimes you don't listen very well? It certainly does not. But it can hold a team back, for sure, a leadership team back for sure, particularly if what we'll talk about later is that if when you do those things, you don't accept feedback well. Feedback is a critical part and we'll get into that in a few minutes.

So, on the arrogance, on the out of balance side when we can become arrogant, that's what lack of humility looks like. What about on the over self-deprecation side? We might have a tendency to bail others out. An inability maybe to accept a compliment. Maybe overuse humor too much can look sometimes or it can feel like and maybe actually be that we're not being as decisive as we should be. And over self-deprecation can also sometimes look like lack of sincerity. For example, if we fail to accept a compliment over and over again and everyone knows we know we did a good job, that can look insincere over time.

So, this gives you a sense for this balance of confidence and humility and what happens when they get out of balance. One note here I wanted to mention here is that when we're talking about lack of humility, I'm talking about lack of humility in most of the CEO or much of the CEO population, or much of the general population. I'm not talking about the extremes of narcissists that they always have to be right, or they always have to add too much value. I'm talking about those CEOs that have a tendency to get out of balance on one side or the other. Narcissists are ... that's a psychological disorder. Unfortunately, there are some leaders and some people that I've worked with that fall into that category. My partner and I have come to the conclusion that they're very hard to deal with and very hard to help. So, we're not necessarily talking about those folks here. We're talking about folks just like you and me who have a tendency sometimes to overdo things, and we may or may not know that we are even doing it. Okay?

So, this gives you a sense of what lack of humility might look like. Let's talk a little bit about why, the topic of conversation here. Why is humility difficult for some leaders to grapple with? Well, I think one of the foundational things is that it's a cultural challenge. And our culture, particularly in the United States is ... and again, this is not a knock at all. I feel like I am a patriot for sure ... But our culture is individualistic, it's competitive, it's fairly optimistic, and it's essentially pretty pragmatic as well.

And those two things or those things, those characteristics of what a Western culture might look like, in general, of course, smack up against this concept of humility. We are ... I know, I went to West Point and I was taught that confidence was a huge part of being a good military officer. And it in fact is a huge part of being a great military officer. But one of the things I learned right out of the starting gate is that confidence without humility is a recipe for disaster, particularly if you have a very good platoon sergeant that is 15 years older than you and takes you aside and says, "Hey, I'm glad you're confident but you have a lot to learn as well." So, our culture is sometimes smacks in the face of this concept of humility.

I think the next thing is really important and I know when I look back on my 30 year career, military and professional, and now in the last 10 years coaching others, I look at the increased complexity, the advances in technology that put information at our fingertips so quickly. And the pace of the business environment today puts stresses on leaders that can exasperate what we call overdone strengths. And again, we'll talk about those a little bit later too.

But an overdone strength is simply something that is ... It's what Marshall Goldsmith said is it got me here. Being an aggressive task-oriented leader early on in my career and being the CEO of a consulting firm really helped me build the processes and build a culture of profitability and customer service that was really important for building a young consulting firm. However, I sometimes overdid those strengths particularly as the pace of the work and as we were growing, the pace of the challenges grew and the complexity, the environment, grew, I sometimes found myself in places that I didn't want to be. I found myself definitely being more arrogant, not listening as much as I would like to. And again, I would have caught myself if I caught it in the moment. But when I look back or when I evaluated how I was doing, I often was overdoing strengths that had gotten me there.

So, being ... overdoing task-focus or overdoing aggressive can be the opposite of that can be arrogant and that can get in the way. And that can cause me to fall out of my humility balance.

And then, I think there are a series of somewhat flawed assumptions that I see in many leaders as they move up the ranks in an organization. I know that when I have been promoted in my organizations or when I see other young folks moving up the ranks, there is a tendency to think you have to know more than you actually do know and more than you actually anyone could know at that point in your career. And so, that can get us in trouble sometimes.

I think there's this other assumption and we see this played out with some of the best and most successful leaders in the world. Steve Jobs, jury is out on this guy Tesla now but it's strong, confident, charismatic leaders are the ones who move up in organizations. And that, there's no question that that can be true. But it's amazing those organizations that are quite successful. If you just look at Ford and Mulally who got them out of the problems they were in in the 2008 crisis. When he left, he was pretty quiet, measured guy. When he left, things sort of fell apart there, as an example.

Leaders who admit mistakes and acknowledge they don't know everything and who actually may listen actively have a tendency to sometimes they view themselves as maybe being weak or others ... they fear that others may view them as being weak. So, these flawed assumptions. The business environment we're in, and the general culture that we work in day to day can make it difficult if you don't step back and evaluate how you're leading. And from our focus of working with leadership teams in how you're working with your leadership team, you can get yourself in trouble as a CEO.

Any questions at this point? Does anyone have any questions or comments? I'm just going to look over here. Nothing so far. Okay, so I'm assuming that this is all making sense to folks.

So, these are some rationale or reasons why it's difficult for leaders from our perspective to be humble. Now we're going to shift focus and talk a little bit about how can you become a more humble leader? And I dragged these two quotes from this article I read a few months back in the Harvard Business Review called ... It's called If Humility is So Important, Why are Leaders So Arrogant? And it actually has some really interesting and somewhat funny anecdotes about Apple, Tesla, and Uber, for example, and our President in some cases as well.

But there were two great quotes in there and really what he does in this article is summarizes a book by Edgar Shine called Humble Inquiry. And this quote is really important and it gets back at the balance in that little graphic that we showed earlier that, "Humility in the service of ambition is the most effective and sustainable mindset for leaders who aspire to do big things in a world filled with huge unknowns."

I think that's just an amazing quote because we're not just being humble just to be nice necessarily, although that's part of it. We're being humble in the purpose of something. And he characterizes it in the services of ambition. And it helps us do big things in the face of many unknowns. I think the times of being able to know everything and have all the information at our fingertips as the leaders of our divisions or the CEOs of our companies is long, long gone. And so, those of you who are leading businesses right now know that being able to deal with ambiguity is a huge characteristic of a great leader. And being able to deal with ambiguity requires humility by default, in my opinion.

The other quote that came out of this article from Bill Taylor was these, the leaders that are humble in the service of ambition focus on the work, not themselves. They seek success. They're definitely ambitious, but they're humbled when it arrives. They feel lucky and not all powerful. They don't feel lucky all the time. They know that their efforts and their team's efforts have contributed, but they also know that with complexity in today's environment, effort counts for a lot but luck sometimes is at our fingertips as well. These two quotes, I thought, got at the essence of what being a humble leader was all about.

So, we think there are four basic blocking and tackling components to being a humble leader. The first ... and I'm going to walk through each one of these in some level of detail ... but the first is self-awareness. Being able to step back and reflect on how things are going for ourselves and how others see us. Checking our overdone strengths and looking at how their maybe getting us out of whack on that confidence/humility seesaw. At the heart of humility is the ability to be vulnerable, and so, we'll talk a little bit more about that. And then, the what I think is an art, the art of giving and receiving feedback is huge in terms of being a very humble leader that has a strong balance on that confidence/humility spectrum.

Let's talk a little bit about self-awareness. And again, many of you who have been on my previous webinars will know that I point back to a woman names Tasha Eurich who I hope she writes a lot more books but one of the best business books I've read in a long time is called Insight by Tasha Eurich.

Let me pull it off my shelf and get the full article, or full title. Insight: Why We're Not As Self-Aware as We Think and How Seeing Ourselves Clearly Helps Us Succeed at Work and in Life. It's a great book and I use her construct of self-awareness in the work that I do and in the writing and the speaking that I do. And so, from our perspective, self-awareness is the key to having a good balance of confidence and humility if you can't step back and reflect on how you're impacting others then you certainly will have a difficult time balancing that humility/confidence spectrum.

So, she did a lot of extensive research to write this book. Several years, 5,000 people, and through that, she found that while most people believe they are self-aware, self-awareness is truly a rare quality. And generally, that's true because of this graphic I have off to the right. To strengthen self-awareness, she suggests that individuals have to focus on two types. And many times, we only focus on internal self-awareness versus external self-awareness. Let me talk about what these both are. They're pretty simple concepts but if you believe that her research is true and most people aren't really that self-aware then this might shed some light on that.

Internal self-awareness represents how clearly we see our own values, passions, and aspirations fit with our environment, reactions, and impact on others. And that's generally when you step back and you think okay, how am I living my life? How am I doing with the work that I'm doing? How am I, not just in terms of the business results I'm getting, but how am I doing it? And how am I impacting others?

It's really important to have that reflection, but it's equally important, and sometimes almost more important in my opinion, to be externally self-aware. It's important to know how you think you impact others. But until you really understand and seek to understand how others view you, you really only have one side of the self-awareness coin. And so, the essence of if you really are truly trying to be a more humble leader, it's really important to step back and look at how you're impacting others. But really also very, very important if you haven't done this is not just assuming that others see you as you see yourself but assuming ... and not just simply not assuming and asking others how they see you.

That's the essence of being self-aware from Tasha Eurich's perspective and I believe it wholeheartedly and I see it every day. People ... There's this great chart. Actually, I wish I had put it in here. If you think about it, there's two bubbles and we see ... We know how we see ourselves. We know what we're motivated by. We know what our intentions are. And on the outside, we know how we behave. Unfortunately, most cases, others only get to see how we behave and they don't necessarily know what our motivations and intentions are. So, really important to understand and gain some insights into this is the behavior I'm giving off or the vibe I'm giving off, is it having the intended effect? I guess is a good way to summarize it.

So, self-awareness is a really important aspect of being a humble leader. Fairly obvious, I guess, but important nonetheless.

Next point is this whole concept of overdone strengths. Having a focused understanding of our own overdone strengths can really provide a good insight into how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us. We all come from different places. We have different childhoods and upbringings and good experience and bad experiences, both personal and professional. And we develop ... okay, there's a chat here real quick.

Okay, I'm going to stop here because there was a question on the last slide. It says, "How do you suggest we solicit feedback from others on how they see us, especially subordinates or peers?" That's a really, really good question. And I'm going to be a little bit flip because Jeff is a classmate of mine from college so I hope you don't mind, Jeff. Basically, just ask, right? And particularly with subordinates, I know CEOs sometimes feel like it gets back to this whole concept of I might display some weakness or I may put people on the defensive ... not defensive ... but make people feel uncomfortable if I ask them for feedback on how I'm doing.

My experience with that is that it has the opposite effect and it has almost a freeing effect with subordinates or direct reports or peers. When you say, "Hey, you know, I have a sense that maybe I'm can be overconfident sometimes or a little prescriptive in how I hand out assignments or give advice or feedback. Is that what you're seeing?" For example. I would go to some folks, your peers, and your Board, or your direct reports, that maybe you know are going to give you some direct feedback if you ask for it. Those that are a little maybe intimidated you might set it up a little bit differently and when you're giving them feedback on something say, "Hey, love to hear how I'm doing as well."

The other construct, Jeff and others on the call or on the webinar, is I think taking a timeout every once in a while, not every time you meet as a leadership team but to check in and give each other some feedback on how you're doing not necessarily on a particular project but how are you leading? How are you ... A good question might be, "Hey, I feel like I'm doing a good job in leading and directing this team. Could you guys give me a little bit of feedback on what maybe I could be doing a little bit differently at times? Not all the time, but sometimes." It's a very basic, general question but you can generate a conversation from that.

And as you'll see later on in the presentation, I think when you do that, particularly when the CEO does that and listens and takes the feedback and says, "Thanks," rather than qualifying it or rationalizing it or arguing with it, it gives people a sense of, "Wow, we have a leader that is humble and strong and is open to making things better here." I don't know if that helped at all, Jeff, but if not, please ask again. And please, anyone else as well.

Okay. I think this will give you some other insights. This is another kind of tool that we use to deal with overdone strengths and gaining insight into what triggers us to overdo our strengths can really help us be more vulnerable. And so, this is just an example of a psychometric instrument that we use with many of our clients but it's no different than Myers-Briggs or DiSC or Insights or Predictive Index or any of the other psychometric instruments out there. I'm using this as an example of what an overdone strength looks like and how you can have a conversation around these things.

So, someone that in the strength's deployment inventory or vernacular is blue, or altruistic nurturing, is trusting, loyal, modest, devoted, supportive ... and generally supportive people-oriented person. If you overdo those strengths, you can look self-effacing, submissive, self-sacrificing, gullible, all of those type things. And when do you do those things? Oftentimes, when you get triggered into them or when you're in a stressful situation.

And the same thing is on the opposite end. Often the opposite side of blue is red, right? And so, this is assertive, directing mode. There's self-confident, risk taker, competitive. And when you overdo that, you can be arrogant or rash or combative, or one or more of those things.

And so, when you, as a team, gain some insights into where people fall on whatever the spectrums you use of these psychometric instruments. But we are big believers in them as a discussion starter, not an end all, be all like it's going to solve all your problems. But it just gives you some insights into how people are similar and how they're different. And most importantly, it gives you some insights into when I overdo being an assertive, directing kind of guy, I can get in my own way and I can certainly get in the team's way.

And so, one way of doing that is saying, "Hey, I am an assertive directive leader. Am I getting in your way at all? Do I overdo that sometimes?" So, thanks for asking the question, Jeff, and it was a good point in the conversation to ask it.

So, understanding or tapping into ... and again, these concepts are kind of related to each other. In order to be self-aware, one way of starting with that is taking a look at what your overdone strengths might look like.

Okay, another question here. "I've found with some experience, I get negative feedback from my folks I work with early in my career when I was much younger. And I get completely opposite and more positive feedback from people I work with currently or later in my career. Are there techniques in helping folks see where you have matured or grown as a leader and a human? Those negatives really seem to stick even over a decade later from early leadership mistakes, it seems."

Wow, I would agree with that. I'll answer your question with a little bit of a story about me and then, trying not to be narcissistic but trying to keep it focused on answering your question.

So, when I was the CEO of that consulting firm that I described my job was to ... I was one of the first employees there and really became the Chief Operating Officer through setting up good process, focus on profitability, focus on just really good service to our customers. And being assertive directive was what I needed to be, but I definitely overdid that a lot. And when I left that firm and went back about five years later and took some guys out to lunch, the feedback they gave me was, "You are a great guy but you were kind of a pain in the ass to work for." And clearly not what I was looking for but not what I wanted to hear. But that sticks with me today, Douglas, it really does.

And I think the way to share that or to help people see how you have evolved as a leader is to actually show some vulnerability and talk about how those early on experiences have shaped the leader you are today. And that you recognize that sometimes you might shift back into that mode when things get stressful or complicated or there's just too many things going on at once, or whatever they might be.

So, I'm a big believer in, again, not spending all of your time talking about this kind of stuff but every once in a while stepping back and asking folks, "How do you think you've evolved as a leader?" And again, using tools like Myers-Briggs or DiSC or whatever tool you might want to use. Or not even using a tool. You can draw a two by two matrix and on the top you can say, it can be, active-oriented and the bottom it's reflective-oriented. And then, a horizontal axis is the left side would be people and the right side would be task. And then, plot each one of you in one of those places on that two by two and it gives you some insights. And it gives you a vehicle for having a discussion about where we've come from.

I hope that's been helpful, Douglas. If not, please tell me. Please let me know if that made any sense to you at all. Okay.

Okay, so spent a lot of time on this overdone strengths piece. Okay, vulnerability. We call it ... I think I stole this from someone ... but the lifeblood of humility is vulnerability. Right? And it shows up in many forms. And an example, Douglas, is that. You sharing the earlier feedback you've had in your career and how you have evolved and how maybe sometimes you still get yourself in trouble, that is a sign of vulnerability that gives your ... and it's not going too far with vulnerability, it's just saying, "Yeah, I've screwed things up before. I've made some mistakes." And having a discussion about that. And it gives people a little bit more carte blanche to do it themselves, at least that's been our experience.

Okay. Let's see. So, vulnerability shows up in a few forms, in a bunch of forms. These are just a few of them. When a CEO or a leader demonstrates that he or she is dependent on her teammates or direct reports, that shows vulnerability. Can you help me prepare for this important meeting with a key donor? I don't know everything, I need help. That may be natural to all of you on the phone. It's not always natural to all the people we work with. So, that's why we're sharing it.

Okay. When I CEO admits that he or she has made a mistake. I set us up for failure when I forced us to commit to launch a new product in that timeframe. She is displaying vulnerability. When I leader reveals her humanness. And this just seems silly to many of you, I'm sure, but just caring and reaching out every once in a while and letting people know that you're interested in them as human beings, showing that you're a human being, is important in terms of being humble. And again, not doing it all the time. Not having a script for it, but just showing people. Unfortunately, I work with many, many leaders that really just don't believe that that's their job and they don't do it and their relationships are fine, but not as good as they otherwise could be.

I think this last piece, this last bullet here, has been hammered home a number of times throughout the course of our discussions so far. But when I leader is focused on mission and purpose rather than status and experience of him or herself, he or she is demonstrating vulnerability.

So, these are a few of the examples of how to demonstrate vulnerability and the key here is that you can't just all of a sudden flip a switch and write up a script to say, "I'm going to be vulnerable today." You have to practice. Right? You have to practice and by being self-aware, by understanding that you overdo some strengths sometimes, and that in asking others for feedback is huge.

Okay. So the last part of the key elements of ... excuse me ... of how to be a humble leader. By default, leaders who are good at giving and receiving feedback, and particularly the receiving part, are humble leaders. And there are two parts to that, right? Providing feedback with an ask not tell approach. How do you provide feedback by asking stuff? Well, it's interesting when if you ask some folks some questions, and genuine questions, not rhetorical questions, about like for example, tell me a little bit about how you think that would work when you hear something that it doesn't necessarily make some sense to you and you want to give some feedback, just ask them for some more clarity. They're more likely to engage in a two-way discussion rather than to hear, "I guess that's what the boss wants."

And receiving feedback with genuine curiosity is absolutely huge. Absolutely, it's one of the most important things. I would say if you're going to model any one characteristic of being a good CEO or a good leader other than acting with integrity, it would be have a genuine sense of curiosity. When you receive feedback that even if it sounds stupid to you, even if it sounds inane, be curious rather than defensive or overly emotional. It's amazing. I see this all the time because one of the first things we do when we work with a leadership team over a period of time is we work with the CEOs up front and mostly just to get them prepared to hear things that they don't want to hear, that are frustrating, that maybe seem inane to them, maybe seem like whining.

But when you create the construct where people, where you're modeling listening and having a sense of curiosity rather than dismissiveness or defensiveness, it's amazing what happens three to six months down the road and you can actually call people out on whining. What I simply mean by that is if you create an environment where you're open to feedback, nine times out of 10 or eight times out of 10, and that ninth or 10th time, you say, "Come on, man, you're just whining about that."