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Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership

Humility: Valuing everybody’s contribution

  • Gerard Seijts, Kimberley Young Milani
  • |
  • Oct 24, 2019
Humility: Valuing everybody’s contribution

Character is an indispensable component of sustainable leadership performance.  Ivey research has identified 11 dimensions of leader character: accountability, collaboration, courage, drive, humanity, humility, integrity, judgment, justice, temperance, and transcendence. In this blog, I explore the dimension of humility. It is easy to think of situations where strong egos have contributed to the success of individuals and the organizations they lead.  Examples include Steve Jobs at Apple, Jamie Dimon at JP Morgan, and Arianna Huffington, author, syndicated columnist, and businesswoman.  But, sadly, there are also many examples in which outsized, uncontrolled egos have gotten leaders into trouble, especially in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. At that time, an abundance of stories circulated about ego-driven CEOs and executive teams whose actions prior to the meltdown put their organizations, shareholders, and indeed the global economy at risk.

History has shown us time and again that without some measure of humility, leaders can fail through overconfidence, arrogance and hubris.  But what exactly do we mean by humility?

Humble people let their accomplishments speak for themselves.  They acknowledge limitations, understand the importance of thoughtful examination of their opinions and ideas, and embrace opportunities for personal growth and development.  They don’t consider themselves to be more important or special than anyone else.  They are respectful, and understand and appreciate the strengths and contributions of others.  And finally, humility is the key to continuous learning; for without it, people aren’t driven to seek out new knowledge or education, feeling that they already know enough, or worse, know it all.   This perspective was well articulated by Andy Grove, one of the founders of Intel, in his biography Only the Paranoid Survive.  Grove was not paranoid but he surely understood that in the fast moving tech world, arrogance, hubris or any sense of invulnerability would surely lead to downfall. 

I had the privilege of meeting Narayana Murthy, former CEO and executive chairman of Infosys Limited, a global software consulting company headquartered in Bangalore, India, when I did the research for my book Good Leaders Learn: Lessons from Lifetimes of Leadership.  Murthy cofounded the company in 1981, ran it as CEO until 2002, and served on its board until 2014.  Infosys was, and is, an astounding business success story.  Infosys invented the delivery model that led to India’s establishment as the global center for IT services outsourcing.  Murthy is extraordinarily accomplished – and celebrated – in his own right.

Murthy told me there is one thing he does without fail every night when he returns home—away from the fanfare, hoopla, awards, deference, and power.  He makes a point of helping clean the bathrooms at his home.  Why does he pick up a toilet brush?  Taking a lesson from Gandhi, he tries to perform tasks that might be considered beneath his elevated station in life—as a reminder that all contributions to society should be valued. "In the corporate context,” he says, “it shows that you have respect for everybody’s contribution." Murthy believes that sustainable success requires CEOs to recognize that there are people who are smarter than they are, and who—given the chance—can do things better. "Once you have that humility,” he explains, “once you have that openness of mind, even when you are doing well, it is possible to learn from people who are doing better than you both within the organization and outside the organization."

But simply recognizing that you can benefit from other people’s honest opinions isn’t enough, Murthy explained, because most employees won’t risk disagreeing with the boss. As a result, the biggest challenge a leader has is to create channels for feedback and keep them open. "The day a leader closes those feedback channels," he says, "is the day when a leader’s power starts diminishing and he or she starts doing things that are completely wrong."

One of the all-time most watched videos on TED.com documents a talk given in 2010 at TEDx Houston by researcher and author Brené Brown.  She argued that healthy and happy people—people she defined as “wholehearted”—have four key attributes: the courage to be imperfect, the compassion to be kind to themselves and to others, and connection with others, as a result of authenticity.  “They were willing to let go of who they should be,” she told her audience, “in order to be who they were.” 

We are imperfect, says Brown, and we are wired for struggle, and we are worthy of love and belonging.  But we have to let ourselves be “seen”—deeply seen.  We have to practice gratitude.  We have to stop yelling, and start listening. 

Nowhere in her talk did Brown use the word “humility.” But it is the implicit undertone in all that she advocates: listening, learning, showing respect, being vulnerable, acknowledging and accepting imperfection.  “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man,” Ernest Hemingway once wrote.  “True nobility is being superior to your former self.”

Humility is as critical for leadership positions in the public, private, and not for profit sectors as it is during your time at the Ivey Business School.  Please take a minute to watch Barbara Stymiest HBA ’78 elegantly explain why she believes fulfilling the role of leader requires humility.

You can read more about humility in the book Developing Leadership Character written by Ivey Business School professors Mary Crossan, Gerard Seijts and Jeffrey Gandz (New York, NY: Routledge, 2016).