2003 - Humility in leadership
We have had two years now to
digest the findings and the conclusions in Good
to Great, the book that propelled Jim Collins,
its author, into an elite band of management gurus
who can command the sort of appearance fees that
are normally charged by former presidents.
The UK's Chartered Institute
of Personnel and Development paid Mr Collins $100,000
(£60,000) to spend an hour and a half speaking
at its conference in Harrogate last week. Most
of what he said was in the book but the Harrogate
faithful do not seem to mind that. They appreciate
a stylish performance and Mr Collins' delivery
was as polished as they come.
For those who might appreciate
a Good to Great refresher, Mr Collins says - and
he has the evidence to support his argument -
that great companies are not led by "gung-ho"
or charismatic types. Instead, the best companies
are run by quiet, dogged people who put the business
first and, above everything, combine a sense of
humility with a will to succeed.
This should not be such a surprise.
The late Robert Greenleaf was saying something
similar in 1970 when he coined the term "servant-leadership"
to describe people who put their workforce and
their company before themselves.
Mr Collins has added substance
to the servant-leadership concept. But, in spite
of the convincing evidence he can produce to support
his theories, his message has still to get through
to recruiters. I do not hear headhunters saying
they are looking for modest, self-effacing types.
But I do still hear people saying they are looking
for charisma. This has been at the heart of the
Conservative party's leadership struggle in the
Do the politicians not know that
charisma is out of fashion? It tends to emerge
at times of crisis. Recall the way that New Yorkers
rallied to Rudolph Giuliani, their mayor, after
September 11 2001. But most of the time it gets
in the way. People spend too much time worrying
about the whims of their boss rather than the
demands of the job.
Instinctively I think we like
upfront identifiable leaders because then we have
someone to blame for our own inadequacies. So
the easiest way to deal with tough organisational
problems is to sack the boss and get a new one.
Most of the successful people
identified in the research behind Mr Collins'
book had come up through the ranks, suggesting
that there is scope for the best people to excel
in those companies that have learnt how to operate
an effective meritocracy.
"Those who grew up with
the problems were the source of solutions,"
says Mr Collins, emphasising the importance of
selection. "People are not your most import
asset. The right people are," he said. "If
you are so good at picking people that you don't
have to spend a whole lot of time worrying about
what those people do or worrying about their inadequacies,
your life becomes a lot easier."
There was some validity, then,
in this message for an audience of human resources
managers. But what should we make of a conference
session featuring an on-stage interview with Sven
Goran Eriksson, manager of the England football
team? In many ways Mr Eriksson appears to fit
the Good to Great leadership mould. He is modesty
personified and always credits the team's success
to the players and the rest of the backroom staff.
There is no complex formula in
the Eriksson way. He acknowledges Tord Grip, his
number two, as the strongest influence on his
management style and admits that he takes advice
from his most experienced players. Asked how he
deals with poor individual performances he said:
"In football it's very easy. You don't pick
the player." Asked the secret of management
success in football, he said the first thing was
"to have good football players", the
second was to respect people and the third was
to keep things simple.
Apparently Mr Eriksson is keen
to do more on the conference circuit. But are
these lessons so valuable for a broader management
audience? As a friend pointed out to me, "Football
is a sport and people like to play. You don't
need to be motivated to play for England but turning
up to your office every day is not the same. In
a game that mainly tends to be managed by pitch-side
ranters who know no better, a quietly spoken Swede
is bound to stand out."
Whether or not his methods can
be translated into business management, Mr Eriksson
might learn a few things from other conference
speakers. The first lesson, which he has already
digested, is that conference speaking can attract
There is a misconception that
A-list speakers are television personalities who
work the after-dinner circuit. But the biggest
hitters, apart from ex-presidents, are those US
management school professors who have mastered
the art of asking the right questions, collecting
and marshalling the empirical evidence and packaging
their ideas in an entertaining talk.
Mr Collins has turned this process
into an industry, breaking away from formal academia
to run his own research consultancy. More than
that, he lives the kind of leadership he espouses.
You would not find him on the golf course with
Jack Welch. His idea of a good time is to go rock-
climbing. He gets his research ideas from listening
to the most challenging questions of his students.
He has also followed a logical path, working first
on what makes good companies, then on what makes
the exceptional few. His next step is to examine
ways of spreading this learning across other sectors
The $64m question, I suppose,
is whether a leadership style that stresses humility
can be adopted by those who are used to getting
their own way. It is not easy to come to work
on the bus or to consult the cleaner when your
job comes with a 24-hour chauffeur and an army
of professional advisers.
I am not suggesting that bosses
should wash their employees' feet in the manner
of the monarch's traditional act on Maundy Thursday.
Real humility is more than a gesture; I think
it has to come from the genuine belief that serving
others matters more than serving ourselves.
as a pdf file