Humility or Futility
Leader humility builds relationships
“Humility is the most difficult of all virtues to achieve; nothing dies harder than the desire to think well of oneself.” — T.S. Eliot, 1927
Take a quick etymological journey with me, if you will.
And no, I don’t mind if you consult a dictionary or Google before we leave.
Etymology is, of course, the study of the origins of words. Not to be confused with entomology, the study of insects.
One of the reasons I know this is because I once took a class on etymology as part of my classics curriculum. At the time, I was pre-med and thought it would be helpful to understand how Greek and Latin influenced words I’d be seeing and using throughout my career.
While I ended up on the business side of medicine rather than the clinical side in the early part of my career, the course was a boon to my vocabulary. Which made a recent linguistic discovery concerning this week's topic all the more surprising to me.
I was thinking about the concept of humility and leadership. Humility is an underrated trait in leaders.
I mean, no one brags about humility, right?
“It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am.” — Muhammad Ali, 1974
Alright, no one brags about it seriously.
With the ubiquity of social media, we're probably accustomed to self-promoters and would-be leaders telling us how great they are. The stereotypical “type-A” personality that is associated with leadership, for better or worse, is filled with the opposite of humility.
And what is the opposite of humility?
Simply put, it’s pride.
One of the Seven Deadly Sins (in case you're keeping track, the others are lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, and envy), pride is often considered the worst of the bunch, the father of all sins.
“Pride leads to every other vice.” — C.S. Lewis, 1952
Pride is closely associated with two other terms, the Greek hubris and the Latin vanitas. The Greeks viewed hubris as placing oneself above the gods, denigrating their standing and authority. Today, we view hubris as pride accompanied by arrogance.
We of course recognize vanity, or an inflated image in the eyes of others, as the descendant of vanitas. But here’s the thing about the definition of vanitas. It also means ‘emptiness,’ ‘falseness,’ or ‘futility.’
That was the first time I had heard futility used in relation to pride or hubris, and it reminded me of a story.
A Familiar Tale of Hubris
We all know the tragic tale of the Titanic. It’s a story that could have written itself: the largest moving object in the world, the most technologically advanced ship ever, and man's hubris flying in the face of God and nature.
“God himself could not sink this ship,” Captain Edward J. Smith uttered at one point. So much ironic material for so many books, plays, and films to come.
The novel Futility picked up on these very themes. Author Morgan Robertson chronicled all of the workings of the ship:
“She was the largest craft afloat and the greatest of the works of men. In her construction and maintenance were involved every science, profession, and trade known to civilization. On the bridge were officers…being the pick of the Royal Navy. The same professional standard applied to the personnel of the engine-room, and the steward's department was equal to that of a first-class hotel.
“The bridge, engine room, and a dozen places on her deck the 92 doors of nineteen water-tight compartments could be closed in half a minute by turning a lever. These doors would also close automatically in the presence of water. With nine compartments flooded the ship would still float, and…this steamship was considered practically unsinkable.”
He got all of the ship’s stats right, or nearly right, as well: 800 feet long, 75,000 horsepower, and on her trial trip had steamed at a rate of 25 knots an hour.
“Unsinkable—indestructible, she carried as few boats as would satisfy the laws. These, twenty-four in number were securely covered and lashed down to their chocks on the upper deck, and if launched would hold 500 people. She carried no useless, cumbersome liferafts; but—because the law required it—each of the 3,000 berths in the passengers’, officers’, and crew’s quarters contained a cork jacket, while about twenty circular lifebuoys were strewn along the rails.”
You know how it ends.
The ship, on its way from Southampton to New York, collides with an iceberg in the middle of the North Atlantic one starry April night. It then sinks with thousands of souls aboard.
It’s a morality tale we've all heard, rich in irony and steeped in tragedy.
Only Robertson’s book wasn’t an eyewitness account of the sinking of the Titanic.
His book, Futility, was originally titled The Wreck of the Titan: Or, Futility.
No, he didn’t get the ship’s name wrong. You see, he wrote his tragic novel predicting the advances of transportation and warning of the inadequacies of maritime regulations — about a fictional ship called the Titan, nearly identical in every way to the Titanic — in 1898.
A full fourteen years before the Titanic set sail.
Now, what does all of this have to do with leadership?
At its core, leadership is about relationships. Expertise, delegation, time management—all necessary functions of the executive—are nothing without relationships.
Relationships are the bedrock of creating the foundation of working together. Without good relationships, we can’t develop our teams, we can’t build great products, we can’t earn trust from all of our stakeholders.
And you can’t develop relationships through vanity, pride, and hubris. You need humility.
Servant leaders are called to serve others with talent and skills: customers, board members, your direct reports whom you’re training. It’s an exercise in humility.
And along the way, you’ll run into some challenges. You're going to find that you need to listen more. You’re going to make mistakes.
And as you do, remember this: three of the most humbling words a good leader can say are:
“I was wrong.”
Sometimes that might mean acknowledging that you might not the right person for the job.
A Case Study in Humility
This is an amazing example of just such leadership in action.
I had the great fortune to serve as an executive at Ford Motor Company. It’s an iconic brand — one started by Henry Ford in 1903. And when I took the job in 2008, I realized just what a special place it was, with Henry's great-grandson Bill Ford in the Executive Chairman role.
But how he got there was another story.
Henry Ford is one of the icons of 20th century business. When Steve Jobs (another icon) passed away in 2010, his name was mentioned along with Henry Ford and Thomas Edison has having had an indelible impact on the world.
When Bill Ford joined the company out of college, his father, William Clay Ford, Sr. said, “You know, you will have to be better than everyone else because of who you are.” (Source: Once Upon a Car by Bill Vlasic, p.19)
He was right. Bill had to overachieve because the perception would be that he was entitled. He had to prove himself.
And he did just that, overachieving. He joined the board at age 31 and just 11 years later in 1999, he was elected Chairman.
But the late ‘Nineties and early ‘Aughts were tough times for Ford. The CEO at that time was Jacques Nasser, an energetic Ford executive who had been with the company for 30 years and also had a sizable ego.
Bill Ford fired Nasser in 2001 and took the CEO role, to much acclaim. It had been more than 20 years since a Ford family member led the company, and it was still family-owned.
The next five years would prove a challenge, with rising costs of raw materials and fuel, as well as pressure from Japanese automakers. The CFO, Don Leclaire, kept leadership apprised of the mounting pressure. The company was exploring a tie-up, selling portions of the company to private equity firms, and other extreme measures to avoid bankruptcy (the family ownership would be voided in such a case).
Then in the summer of 2006, Leclaire informed Ford that it had eighteen to thirty-six months of cash left. The situation was dire. (Source: American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company by Bryce Hoffman, p. 53)
At that point, Bill Ford, the great-grandson of the company's founder, made one of the most critical decisions in his life: he would step aside as CEO, telling one of his directors,
“No single individual can run this company effectively under the current circumstances. I need help. Help me get that help.”
When you consider the reputation of U.S. automakers at the time as myopic and egotistical (deservedly so), this was a remarkable move from a self-aware leader. That it was a descendant of Henry Ford made it all the more shocking.
“The most remarkable operating executive in the country”
That was Bill Ford’s reaction was after meeting Alan Mulally for the first time. (Vlasic, p. 146) Alan was CEO of Boeing’s commercial aircraft division at the time, and it took quite a bit of wooing to convince Alan to leave the aeronautics industry.
Alan was eager, energetic, and earnest. He had a charming demeanor: jubilant, familiar, and always asking questions. And he quickly assessed the situation, saying “I think you need clarity. You need real clarity of the plan, clarity of communication.” (Ibid.,p. 149)
Alan always had a way of taking a complex situation and creating a simple way of thinking about it — that clarity that he mentioned to Bill. But in my experience, Alan’s simplification never made you feel as if he was talking down to you. He was always bringing you on a journey with him.
For someone who had successfully run a major division of a company like Boeing and ran a global icon like Ford, Alan had plenty of reasons to have an ego. And yet, he was more humble than anyone I've ever met.
When I expressed how proud I was to work for him and what a great job he was doing, he’d always demur with, “Scott, it’s an honor to serve.”
Servant leadership. Always.
The Really Neat Part
Henry Ford had once been the chief engineer at Edison’s main plant in Detroit. He considered Thomas Edison a mentor, and later they could become colleagues: two visionaries who, through their innovations, changed how the world looked and worked. But, as the saying goes, “vision without execution is just hallucination.”
And the execution is exactly what Bill Ford was struggling with before hiring Alan. Bill had always been a visionary. It's extraordinary to watch him think and animatedly talk about the possibilities that the future brings. His TED Talk in 2011 was ahead of its time, addressing many of the mobility opportunities that are here today.
But Bill needed someone to execute that vision.
He found it in Alan, who said:
“I kept thinking: a compelling vision, a comprehensive strategy, and then relentless implementation. That’s our plan.” (Vlasic, p. 155)
But Alan knew that it wasn’t enough to have a vision; he needed the visionary by his side to keep the momentum going.
Again his humility came to the surface as he gave a condition for his employment:
“I won’t take the job unless Bill stays as chairman. Bill has the name. I’m sure he has the magic with the employees, and probably with the dealers. He can do things I wouldn’t be able to do because of who he is and the way he is.” (Hoffman, p. 72)
That’s exactly what happened. Alan took the CEO role on September 6, 2006, and he and Bill Ford announced the partnership to the world.
It was a partnership in emotional intelligence. In servant leadership.
The follow-up essay on humility is available here, originally for subscribers only and now open to the public:
If you like what you see, please consider becoming a member today.
And if you made it this far and would like to explore more deeply, check out this interview with Marilyn Gist, who wrote the book The Extraordinary Power of Leader Humility with Alan Mulally:
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.