Viewpoint -- How About Some Humility

Dec. 21, 2004
Executives should take up this virtue as a management strategy.

In my decade of working as a business journalist -- at newspapers and here at IndustryWeek -- I've written and read lots about executive leadership. Bookshelves overflow with tomes on this topic, and many a "summit," "conference" and "seminar" have had those two words in their titles. Inspire. Set Goals. Communicate. Synergize. Move The Cheese. Get The Right People On The Bus. Get The Wrong People Off The Bus. You know what I mean. Here's a radical new concept for executive leadership though: humility. Certainly the idea of servant-leader (making the betterment of those who work for you your modus operandi) is not new, but it's hardly popular. At one point, IndustryWeek even had a columnist who wrote frequently about this topic, but he was disliked by some leaders at my company, and so we were encouraged to use his page for something else. And yet, think about all the physical and emotional suffering that executive hubris has caused during manufacturing's relatively short history in this country alone, from the sweatshop deaths of women and children in the 19th century to the 21st century Enron employees who watched their retirement savings and jobs disappear without warning. I'm not talking about the hard decisions that leaders have to make -- closing plants that no longer deliver, eliminating jobs that are no longer needed. I've witnessed executives being lambasted for making what, in the long run, are smart business decisions that keep companies afloat. I'm talking about the belief that just because a certain class of people do the jobs they are hired to do -- in this case deliver profits -- they can operate above the rules and with whatever entitlements they can finagle. That's wrong on several levels. From a pure performance point of view, anyone who thinks he deserves hyper-compensation for doing a job well is foolish. You might be able to pull that off for a while, but eventually someone smart figures out there's someone else who can do your job for less money. Secondly, this attitude ultimately derails job performance, whether your compensation is actually so overgrown that it's sucking off profits or investors and board members just get an inkling that it is. And finally -- -and this is the part that gets gooey because of human ego and our love of success and money -- it's an attitude that rots your soul. If success and money go away, not much is left. An abundance of recent examples prove my point, and, they keep coming. On April 20, business sections across the country carried these headlines among their pages: "Shell Executive Said He Was Sick Of Lying," and "McDonald's CEO James R. Cantalupo Mourned." I don't know if either of these gentlemen suffered from executive egomania. But I do know that 1) lying is wrong and 2) when you die, you can't take anything with you, your reputation remains here, and your soul goes somewhere else. In the case of the Royal Dutch/Shell Group of Cos. top executive, his e-mail, in which he said he was "sick and tired of lying" about the company's inflated oil and gas reserves, was reviewed as part of an ongoing investigation within the company. And the late Cantalupo, known as an energetic leader and turn-around man, died unexpectedly at a company function designed to energize and celebrate its employees and owners. We don't know why the Shell executive was sick of lying or for how long he did it. It's hard to say how much, if any, humility was involved in his complaint. But had humility been there in the first place, the lies wouldn't have happened, the company's shares probably wouldn't have dropped $7 on April 8, and it wouldn't be spending time and money to investigate, defend itself legally, and rebuild after a string of resignations. A dose of humility would have been a good management strategy for this company. Clearly, lack of it is going to hurt profits. As for Cantalupo, his untimely death tells us that yes, great leaders can do much good with the gifts they are given. They can genuinely inspire and orchestrate the creation and sustenance of things we all benefit from, be it goods such as a hamburger, assets such as a salary or compassion such the welcome families with sick children get at the Ronald McDonald house. But in the end, without humility, leaders will die without having reached their full potential. The greatest strategic asset a leader can possess is knowing that his or her talents are indeed rare, and that the ultimate purpose of those gifts is for the betterment of more than one person. Tonya Vinas is IndustryWeek's managing editor. She is based in Cleveland.

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