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Humility: The common trait of great leaders

Several of us at EMA were privileged to attend the Atlanta leadership conference sponsored by the ChickFilet company. My favorite speaker there was Jim Collins. I always get something from what he says.

If you’ve ever read his bestselling book “How the Mighty Fall” you know that he chronicles how companies go through five steps to failure.. the first step toward failure is one that has become a theme of mine recently.. “Success leads to hubris.. “ put more plainly.. our successes, both personal and professional, can lead to arrogance. And within arrogance, are the seeds of our destruction.

In “Good to Great,” Collins chronicled how that truly great CEO’s shared a common trait.. humility.

This flies in the face of what we commonly think of as leadership, but Collins is not primarily a philosopher, he’s a researcher, and his data is inarguable. Hubris is the first step to failure. Good leadership begins with humility. I think it was Tom Peters who noted many years ago, “those that can’t lead.. are doomed to manage.” Managers do things right.. leaders do the right things. Managers are a type of leader.. but it’s the lowest rung on the ladder.

Leaders take almost none of the credit for success, but all of the blame for failure. I use this simple truth to evaluate almost anyone on where they are as a leader, including myself. Anyone that I see blaming others for their shortcomings or failures, rates low in my estimation of them as a leader. Conversely, those that take blame, even when it isn’t due, rank high in my book. When I find myself tempted to blame others for either personal or business problems.. (and it’s a common temptation) there’s a check in my spirit.

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There’s a great story in a military leadership book that I read years ago about a British military academy instructor who after telling his students about the leadership principles of a top military company was asked a question. “Sir, what if you are assigned to command a lousy company?” The old warrior paused and said.. “son, if you have a lousy company, then you are a lousy commander.”

There’s actually something quite empowering about accepting full responsibility for a situation. If I’m the problem.. then I’m the solution. That leads to a lot more problem solving than wringing your hands over what someone else is doing.

Collins asked all of us two questions, that I’d like to ask each of you.

  1. Are you proud of the professional choices you’ve made recently?
  2. Are you proud of the personal choices you’ve made?

Great questions.

For more information on Jim Collins go to www.jimcollins.com

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