The humble leader

Recently a company I know has chosen as a new leader of one of his most important project a very arrogant person.
I had the opportunity to work with him some times ago, and all the people that met him agree with me about his arrogance.
This man has indubitably a great know-how, he’s brilliant and talented for his work (but maybe less than others) but he is very able to increase his self-branding.
He built in times an image of solid professional, built not on his 20 years experience but on his bad temperament, on his arrogance, his language often remarkable when not openly rude.

The question is: he’s been chosen because or despite his bad temperament?

Some times ago I read an interesting story: a leader of a great company asked to a marketing guru if the fact his company wasn’t as big as Apple depended on he was an humble leader.
The answer was that Apple was a big company in spite of Jobs’ bad temperament.

In the highly controversial Good to Great book, the author, James C. Collins examines the performance over 40 years of 11 companies that became great.
The first of seven characteristics of companies that went “from good to great” is to have an inspired but humble leader.

Although many companies and many project have a strong leader, in my mind the my way or the highway approach is located just a step away from Godfather’s style.

I believe that a leader ought to be flexible, to be a good listener and not only a screaming monkey, he should be ready to learn from his mistakes, he should be aware to be not perfect, but perfectible.
In a nutshell, a good leader is charismatic and inspiring but refuses to be bossy.

A good example of charismatic humble leader is without doubt Mr. Barack Obama, a bossy leader is – unfortunately – Mr Silvio Berlusconi.

To be driven to do what’s best for the company, to be enthusiastic and crowd enchanter is quite different from state own authority with arrogance: in my humble opinion, a bad temperament often could hide skills and talents or – worse – cover a lack of them.

In reverse, an overweening attitude, very often shows an inner weakness and a intimate need to be reassured that immediately ceases when that leader lost his/her power.

That said, if mostly researches demonstrate that good-to-great leaders, it turns out, are humble, why so many bully leader there around?

Be inspiring. Don’t be overwhelming. Be a leader.


17 thoughts on “The humble leader

  1. I would very much challenge the assertion that “Obama (is a) charismatic humble leader”. Ok, maybe the bombing of Libya can be seen as a very humble act, but I somehow don’t see it like that. He may sound humble sometimes (thank his PR department) but person should not be judged by what they say, but rather by what they do.

    I won’t go into “charismatic”, since that’s too subjective.

    You are also bringing up research. Whenever one does that, they are expected to be scrutinized. So, what research are you referring to? Or was that just a throw-in to prove your point without actually any substantiation?

    If you take a look at the wikipedia page for Good to Great you link to, you’ll see that more of the ‘great’ companies have failed (3: one bankrupt, one involved in a home mortgage scandal, one received a big rescue loan) than the failures the author compares them to (2: one bankrupt, another received a big rescue loan). Which means that he is not proving any of his premises.

    We all feel it’s better to have a humble leader (because we like it like that), but that does not necessarily mean it is better. History has shown us that regardless of their humility, smart leaders have been respected and eventually loved.

    So, be smart. Admit mistakes because it’s smart and allows you to improve on them (and it takes away ammunion of your public opponents :). Do the smart things. Respect people because that’s how you get them to enjoy what they are doing and feel good about themselves.

    Humility is not the opposite of being a jerk.

    • Hi Danilo!

      Thank you very much for you comment.

      Well, I never said that an humble leader has to do humble acts, but do you really assume to have to be aggressive to do smart things? I don’t think so.
      What I said is that a bad temperament add nothing to a leader but a bad temperament and arrogance.

      If you take a look at the wikipedia page for Good to Great you link to, you’ll see that more of the ‘great’ companies have failed (3: one bankrupt, one involved in a home mortgage scandal, one received a big rescue loan) than the failures the author compares them to (2: one bankrupt, another received a big rescue loan). Which means that he is not proving any of his premises.

      I wrote this essay is quite controversial, and you’re free to contest it but, if you ask Google the good leader’s skills it will answer in the same way 🙂

      regardless of their humility, smart leaders have been respected and eventually loved.

      Many people is loved. I can’t consider myself catholic, but a deeply respect a man such as Pope Johannes Paulus II a men which never refused to fight, but remained always a humble person. Can you offer me a similar example of a bully leader so deeply loved and devoted?

      Humility is not the opposite of being a jerk.

      And arrogance in not opposite of weakness 🙂

      Thanks for being here! 🙂



    • I can understand and respect your opinion that Obama is not humble, that the text cited is not a popular one, and that charisma is not so easily defined. All good points. But it does sound like, essentially, you are agreeing with the post. You say leaders must be intelligent, admit mistakes, and respect people.
      These are all characteristics of a humble person, and of a humble leader. Humility is essentially the ability to see and admit to your mistakes, are human and equal to all, and need to apologise sometimes.

      In contrast, Flavia is describing a leader who would never ask for forgiveness, is unwilling to own up to mistakes, and in an effort to cover up a lack of skill or intelligent ideas, is abusive and arrogant. This is the true heart of the piece: an understanding that these people should probably not be leaders – because they are harmful to companies and organisations, and quickly lose the fealty and respect of their workers. And yet these people are usually the ones rewarded with promotions and payrises, because they can easily pretend to be better than everyone else.

      Sometimes, this ‘business psychopathy’ – discouraged and frowned upon in normal society but encouraged in politics and business, is accompanied by actual talent. This confuses people, as they start to think that maybe one cannot exist without the other. I believe this is a false and dangerous idea.

      You also point out that the book quotes business leaders with failed companies. All companies fail eventually, sometimes they rise again sometimes they don’t. I’d say the downward spiral of big companies is more obvious now than ever. But this is not about business successes, this is about leadership.
      I may not know a damn thing about business, but I know a good leader when I see one. They are engaged, they are sympathetic, they are heartless when they need to be, and yes sometimes they are humble.

      I agree that we can’t make our definition of a leader as simplistic as humble v. jerk, I would argue instead that to define a good leader we start at the word ‘humble’ and make worthy additions along the way.

  2. The sad reality is that these people tend to be the ones that get promoted. It is frustrating to no end. Whenever I start to see this happening, I jump ship and get another job.

    There are some common traits, I’ve noticed with arrogant people. One trait is that they don’t like to write things down, everything is verbal, so there is no record, and they can change their story at any time. When you have to deal with arrogant managers/developers/etc. try and ensure that everything is written down and recorded. That can actually go a long way.

    On the flip side when hiring, I now treat personality as something far more important that technical ability. I’ve dealt with a few bugs that ended up only taking 1 minute to fix, as the failure was so obvious in the code, but it can take months to get an arrogant individual to even open an editor and look at the function in question. If your company has high security, and you do not have access to the code or revision control of other teams, this is a much, much bigger problem, than it ever should be. I can give ***literal*** examples where the bug took 1 minute to diagnose and fix, but 5 months to get the developer to look at his own code.

  3. Lady!!

    I get it that you don’t like this GUY nor Mr. Silvio Berlusconi, but bitching about your ex-boss and calling him a MONKEY on a public domain isn’t the best show of job ethics from your side either.

    It’s true that lacking humility and charisma is uncool, but so is back bitching and fostering hatred.

    So lets not judge people.

    Thank you

    • Hi!

      I’m not referring to my ex-boss, the guy I’m talking about in the first part of my post is a person I worked with and not to whom I worked for. I’m not referring to anybody in detail with the expression of “screaming monkey”. If somebody is hurt by this expression, I need to think to a cultural mismatch (and please suggest an alternative expression:) ): for me a screaming monkey is a man or a woman so sure about their position to yell and pretend to be always right. Screaming monkey are everywhere, nevertheless their position.
      And, definitely, I really can’t call my ex-boss a monkey, on first because she (and not hs) is a Lady, and second one because she is one of the most fantastic women I had the opportunity to work with: her name is Karen Sandler. Do you know her? 😉

  4. Pope John Paul? The guy who has his own page for criticism? for your pleasure. If that is your definition of a loved leader, I don’t think I have a problem finding more. The pope held back the Catholic church by at least 50 years with his outdated opinions (contraception being the biggest example) and played a huge part in the Western world getting rid of religion. Every catholic I talked to in Germany excused the pope since I was old enough to think about those problems (1990s).

    I agree with Danilo that you’re mostly fabricating the results you want so that you can prove your point. It may be possible that you can find a few leaders that can be described as humble, but the vast majority of them – including Linus Torvalds – are controversial, opinionated and definitely not humble. They’re no bad people – otherwise nobody would want to follow them – but they are definitely people you have to come to terms with and don’t just like.

  5. hey,
    When I read about arrogant, bully leaders psychopaths come into my mind. Psychopaths don’t feel don’t feel any empathy nor have any remorse for their bad actions. They are more common in leadership positions (political and in corporations) than in the lowest level of society. But on the other hand psychopaths competence is rather superficial, they are usually not engineer nor scientist.

    Of course not nearly every arrogant, bully leader is a psychopath. Just as a reminder that a group of people just feels very different than the others.

    I found the video “Defense Against the Psychopath” on YouTube well worth seeing.

  6. The question about whether he was chosen because of or in spite of his attitude is a good one. Succesful people “with attitude” often convince themselves that they’ve gotten to where they are because of their attitude while in reality, they’ve made it that far in spite thereof.

    When you think your attitude is what allowed you to rise to where you are, it’s only natural to keep doing it or perhaps even increasing these character traits (being more verbally abusive, listening less to people’s concerns, etc.). If noone ever tells them that this behaviour is in fact holding them back, everyone suffers.

    There’s a book called “What got you here won’t get you there”. It’s written by an executive coach who goes through a number of these unfortunate behaviours and explains how people have overcome them. It’s more of a book for people to learn how to avoid *exhibiting* this behaviour rather than a book to help people deal with other people who exhibit the behaviour, but it’s an eye opener nonetheless.

  7. A humble team leader also needs humble team members. A team leader who does not dictate to the team but who coordinates the activities of the team needs other team members to support him or her against aggressive, domineering team members. A humble team leader also needs other team members to accept responsibility for doing the work that the team is required to do and not leave everything to the team leader.

  8. @Jelly: we seem to be coming off different definitions of “humble” then. At least mentions “modest” as part of it. I see no reason at all to start with a modest person in particular for coming up with a good leader.

    I’ve admitted to my own mistakes a number of times (hopefully every time I made them and was questioned about them), and have led a number of teams (I would hope successfully), but I am pretty sure not many people would define me as very modest (though I am sure some would as well).

    There are also examples of good leaders who even get close to being classified as jerks (i.e. Steve Jobs, anyone?).

    No, humble people are pleasant to be around. Just as we’d prefer a humble leader, we’d prefer a humble colleague. I am basically saying that humility is orthogonal to the issue of good leadership. All the same arguments hold for any area of human endeavor (“it would be good to have a humble car mechanic because [fill in the same reasons]”).

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