Humility: Essential for Effective Leadership
In my comprehensive study of CEOs of the most enduringly successful companies in the graphic communications industry, several traits were identified as consistently high among the study group. Perhaps surprisingly, few were more prevalent than humility.
Recently, I read with interest a review by Emily Bobrow in the Wall Street Journal of a new book by Jeff Immelt, the former CEO of General Electric called “Hot Seat: What I learned Leading a Great American Company.” Immelt followed the late Jack Welch who, during a 20-year tenure as CEO of GE, oversaw dramatic growth. During that time, GE’s revenues quintupled, shareholder returns increased 70-fold and its market cap peaked at $600 billion, earning Welch Fortune magazine’s “manager of the century” nod.
Immelt recalls the time just prior to becoming CEO when he was asked what he did. He replied that he worked for GE. The response was “Jack Welch! I feel sorry for the poor SOB who’s taking his place.” Big shoes, indeed.
What happened under Immelt’s watch is the stuff of business school case studies and, of course, business books. The company lost about $500 billion of cap value, the stock price plummeted, and about half of its global workforce is gone. The reader can decide how much Immelt blames the circumstances he inherited, and the degree of responsibility he accepts. Fair to say there is enough of both. For starters, beginning your job as CEO on September 10, 2001 doesn’t portend anything good. Then there is the matter of following a legend. Anyone remember the name of the Green Bay Packer’s coach who followed Vince Lombardi?
Still, there is a great deal to take from an experience like Immelt’s. Two of his comments struck a chord with me. Here’s the first. “I wish I had said ‘I don’t know’ more often. There’s a certain vulnerability to saying I haven’t figured this out yet. But there are a few times when that would’ve served me better”.
In an article titled “Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve” best-selling business author Jim Collins describes the attributes that make up leaders who perform at the highest levels over a long period of time. He calls counterintuitive the discovery that transforming companies from good to great is not reserved for larger-than-life, big ego, big personalities. Rather it is that rare, paradoxical combination of personal humility and professional will that catapult managers from highly capable, to competent to executive at Level 5, the highest in Collin’s rating system.
Indeed, it seems counterintuitive to think that humility (evidenced by phrases like “I hadn’t thought of that” or “I don’t have a fully-formed judgement on that” or simply “I don’t know”), combined with strong personal will, can be among the most important leadership traits and help contribute to enduring organizational success. The evidence to support this idea is compelling.
The second quote: running a company “is a lonely job”. Indeed! Maybe that’s why an ever-increasing number of CEO’s seek a professional coach; a confidant and someone talk with who will listen without judgement or emotion. A sounding board who will guide the executive toward becoming the best version of themselves.
For more information on effective leadership traits and how to transform your organizational leadership, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Oh, and that successor to Vince Lombardi? Phil Bengtson, whose three-year record in Green Bay totaled 20-21-1.
Joseph P. Truncale, Ph.D., CAE, is the Founder and Principal of Alexander Joseph Associates, a privately held consultancy specializing in executive business advisory services with clients throughout the graphic communications industry.
Joe spent 30 years with NAPL, including 11 years as President and CEO. He is an adjunct professor at NYU teaching graduate courses in Executive Leadership; Financial Management and Analysis; Finance for Marketing Decisions; and Leadership: The C Suite Perspective. He may be reached at Joe@ajstrategy.com. Phone or text: (201) 394-8160.