Humor and Humility are Key Executive Traits

Last Updated Aug 26, 2009 11:19 PM EDT

I once spent four hours in a meeting getting a hard sell from the CEO of a large electronics distributor. I had a problem with his company's business practices and had terminated their contract, but they wouldn't go down without a fight and asked for a meeting to make their case. My CEO and I reluctantly agreed.

But the distributor CEO's over-the-top, heavy-handed sales pitch only served to reinforce my original decision. In fact, his style ignited my built-in "slime" sensors. Apparently, I wasn't the only one.

When the meeting was over and the distributor entourage had left our boardroom, my CEO turned to me and said, "Better check to make sure you've still got your wallet."
Another time, when our biggest customer wanted my head over a critical media leak that had actually come from them, not us, I offered to resign to save the customer relationship. My CEO smiled and replied, "You're not getting off that easy."

Don't get me wrong, our CEO was no comedian. On the contrary, he had an incredible financial mind, was the hardest working executive in the building, and possessed the presence and eloquence of a true leader. But he had two additional qualities that set him apart from the vast majority of top executives I've worked with over the years: a sense of humor and humility.

Why are humor and humility so important in a top executive?
Simply put, these are leadership traits because they attract and resonate with all kinds of people. As such, they facilitate an executive's ability to build a sense of community and culture. You know, one company with common attributes executing in lockstep to accomplish common goals. That sort of thing.

Also, people who lack a sense of humor and humility often tend to be overly self involved, self important, egotistical, narcissistic, and dysfunctional. At least I've found that to be true in my experience. As a result, they may operate effectively in a narrow range of conditions, but as circumstances inevitably change, they eventually self-destruct.

I guess we can summarize by saying that senior executives with a sense of humor and humility are probably more adaptive to a broad range of changing conditions and are more likely to be successful over the long haul than those who lack those traits. But that's based solely on my observation and experience. How about yours?