Lionhearted Leadership


The November issue of the Harvard Business Review features a global list of 100 top-performing CEOs of 2015. The list is based on financial metrics as well as environmental, social and governance indicators.

It’s hard to be king

Lars Sørenson, of Novo Nordisk, came in at #1. He’s the low-key CEO of the Danish-based multinational pharmaceutical company specializing in diabetes treatment. Here’s how he responded in the HBR interview: “I don’t like this notion of the ‘best-performing CEO in the world.’ That’s an American perspective—you lionize individuals. I would say I’m leading a team that is collectively creating one of the world’s best-performing companies. That’s different from being the world’s best-performing CEO.”

Even as he was reluctantly crowned top CEO, Sørenson exuded humility, which can be defined as not holding oneself as superior to others. The word derives from the Latin root humus, or earth, soil, on the ground. In an organizational context that looks like taking responsibility for one’s mistakes and shortcomings, shining the spotlight on others and role-modeling continual learning, all behaviors that Sørenson has practiced relentlessly.

How important is humility, really?

Lazlo Bock, Google’s SVP of People Operations, would say it’s critical. We face a competitive global market of ever increasing complexity that demands creative thinking beyond the capacity of a single person. Bock specifically looks for intellectual humility in the recruitment process because these are the people who are able to problem-solve with others: they know when and how to contribute, solicit input and then get out of the way.

The research supports Google’s hiring strategy. According to a Catalyst study, leadership that is intentionally inclusive of others increases both innovation and team citizenship. These findings held up across six different countries.

But this doesn’t quite add up. Don’t executives also need to demonstrate assertiveness, confidence, vision and influence? In other words, don’t they need a substantial ego to get to the top and stay there?

The answer is yes and yes. In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins describes this as a Level 5 Leader [paywall], someone who combines deep humility with ferocity of purpose. Think Abraham Lincoln. These leaders are few and far between but when at the helm they inevitably steer a company or country towards “enduring greatness”.

Our Top 3 Favorite Articles on Humility

Are they caught or taught? Here are takeaways from our three favorite articles on making humility a habit:

#3 Humility: The Secret to Confident Leadership, R. Westwood

  • Welcome new ideas
  • Listen
  • Support a strong team
  • Be willing to make mistakes
  • Delegate
  • Recognize team efforts in success

#2 Six Principles for Developing Humility as a Leader, J.Dame & J. Gedmen

  • Know what you don't know
  • Resist your own publicity
  • Never underestimate the competition
  • Foster a spirit of service
  • Listen, especially to weird ideas
  • Be passionately curious

#1 The Best Leaders are Humble Leaders, J. Prime & E. Salib

  • Share mistakes as teachable moments
  • Engage in dialogue vs. debate
  • Embrace uncertainty
  • Role model being a follower

There’s hope for all of us

Fortunately, even the most self-absorbed leader can be saved by acts of humility. In fact, narcissism and humility can be quite complimentary says research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology:

“The effect of potentially constructive aspects of narcissism may be enhanced by humility by, for example, extreme confidence being tempered by the leader’s acknowledgment of his or her faults and limitations [and] a preoccupation with personal success being balanced with recognizing others for success…”

At the other end of the spectrum is the Cowardly Lion, traipsing along the yellow brick road in search of the courage that already resided within. His leadership presence emerged only as his self-confidence caught up with his humble self-perception.

As it turns out, we look to the leader who has both a strong sense of self and is called to act selflessly.

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