What's So Great About Humility?

Last Updated Sep 1, 2008 11:26 AM EDT

Jim Collins, the author of "Good to Great", wrote that Level 5, or 'great', leadership involves being modest and considerate. Level 5 leaders "build enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will".

Oh yeah? Tell that to Jack Welch, Larry Ellison, Richard Branson, Sir Alan Sugar, Steve Jobs, Sir Philip Green, or a host of other highly effective and successful leaders.

According to Prufrock, a poll of most admired UK entrepreneurs puts Branson, Sugar and, er, Katie Price (aka Jordan) top of the list. Hardly the most self-effacing individuals in the land.

So does modesty matter? There are all kinds of things that determine corporate effectiveness and the character of the person at the top is just one. You can select a group of companies based on a set of outcomes, then take the fact that the outcomes correlate with the characteristics of their leaders, but that doesn't mean you can assume that the leaders caused the outcomes.

Being modest, understated and humble is not necessarily how you create great results and great companies, nor is it how you get to the top -- or even how you progress generally.

What's needed to succeed in organisational life is a clear personal brand. Brands are about differentiating products and services. They represent a promise about what can be expected. What's your brand promise? Tom Peters talks about "the brand called You"-- what people think about you, what you have a reputation for, what sort of performance you have delivered in the past and what performance they believe you can deliver in the future. Modesty is not a compelling brand promise.

What do people see in you? If you believe that you're solely responsible for your success and career, think again. You aren't the one who makes the decision about whether to promote you, keep you or fire you. It's your boss and your boss's boss who make those decisions. If you haven't made it clear to them how you add value, why should they offer you career advancement and development?

Here's a suggestion for gaining your boss's support. Psychological research shows that that when you do something for someone that you don't have to do, that person's view of you improves and they become more interested in helping you.

But it works the other way as well. If you ask your bosses for career advice they become interested in ensuring your career success. When people offer advice, especially when it has been specifically asked for, they want it to result in a positive outcome. People like to be regarded as respected advisers. It's flattering. By asking your boss, or an individual who can influence your career, for helpful advice, you make them part of solution.

Let them help you develop the brand of "you". (And check out Leila's tips on personal branding on BNET.) If you want to get ahead you have to differentiate yourself, and hiding your light under a bushel isn't going to get you noticed. Being part of the crowd means you move with the crowd, but never faster.

  • Robin Stuart-Kotze

    Robin Stuart-Kotze is a founder of the consultancy Behavioural Science Systems, whose clients include P&O, BP, Oracle, and Johnson & Johnson. He’s also made his way in management, largely in the financial services sector in the UK and Canada. A distinguished academic with a PhD in organisational psychology, Robin co-wrote “Who Are Your Best People?” about effective talent management.