Want to Be a Real Leader? Forget “You”

LinkedIn – Charles de Gaulle, President of France and no shrinking violet himself, liked to remind people that “the cemeteries are full of indispensable men.” Forget that reminder of humility, and you’re unlikely to build something that lasts longer than you do.

In his seminal book “Good to Great,” Jim Collins makes the critical observation that some “rockstar” CEOs leave a company with record earnings, productivity, and reputation – but that the same organization crashes and burns soon after they leave. That’s a great example of a leader who ensures his or her own fame and success, rather than the long-term security of the company.

Strong leaders can often feel that they’re making the vital difference to everything – and everyone – in an organization. They believe that the firm’s legacy and their legacy is one and the same. But that kind of self-importance (après moi, le deluge) is toxic to trust-building. Leaders with a me-first attitude are often too distracted playing the smartest guy in the room to realize the floodwaters have already begun to rise before they make their exits.

That’s exactly what happened at Enron. When Jeff Skilling proclaimed “I am Enron,” the energy giant was at its peak. If Skilling had had the humility to pull his head out of the clouds, he might have seen the water was already ankle-high. The hubris of the Lay-Skilling-Fastow team didn’t just destroy Enron; their lack of humility damaged the public’s trust in business leaders generally. With a raft of scandals at WorldCom, Tyco, Global Crossing and Enron, it wasn’t just these companies or their leaders who took the trust hit; we all did.

If you want to build something enduring, try the opposite approach. Internalize the notion that you’re a temporary steward, guiding people, assets, and decision-making, and protecting the values and vision that make an organization what it is. Part of humility is building for a future you won’t see, and ensuring that the best parts of the business not only last, but can be built upon by the next generation of leaders.

One of my favorite examples of humility comes from the 1950’s farm machinery industry and Moline, Illinois. After a century of dominance by International Harvester (IH), competitor John Deere got a new president in Bill Hewitt, a Harvard Business School dropout and the great-grandson of John Deere himself. Hewitt set about turning the business into a multinational corporation. He gained a reputation as a well-liked leader and quick learner, and the trust he inspired in his employees helped Deere leapfrog past IH to lead the industry. At the end of Hewitt’s nearly 3-decade tenure, people said, “He made us realize how good we were.”

It’s hard to imagine higher praise for a leader: one who’s capable of building trust between people, and of empowering them to trust themselves.

Leaders determined to build cultures where trust is more than just a feel-good notion know that it’s hard work. As Herman Miller CEO Max De Pree said, “Earning trust is not easy, nor is it cheap, nor does it happen quickly. Earning trust is hard and demanding work. Trust comes only with genuine effort, never with a lick and a promise.”

It may sound like a paradox, but to be effective, high-trust leaders must see themselves as both vital and dispensable. The 10th critical element for building a high-trust enterprise is having the humility to recognize the other 9 (discussed in the prior posts):

1) Ensuring personal integrity

2) Showing interpersonal respect

3) Empowering team members

4) Holding people accountable

5) Articulating a vision for winning

6) Developing a trust-building budget

7) Making sure no one is “kept in the dark”

8) Being willing to sacrifice

9) Making conflict constructive

It’s a lot to shoulder, and there is plenty of room for error at every step. Which is why addressing all of these elements requires a level of selflessness – of ego-suspension – that is critical to finding the right answers and learning from inevitable mistakes. Unless leaders have the humility to learn, to grow, and to weather the journey along with us, few will want to trust them. Without that trust, they won’t succeed, and neither will we.

Building a durable, high-trust culture means focusing on the success and well-being of those around you – on the organization as a whole, but primarily on the people that give it energy and life. If you want to be a high-trust leader, you’ve got to be in the center – but you can’t be the center.

By Joel Peterson