April 18, 2007
An Underrated Quality
One overlooked and underrated leadership quality that has gotten a bit more press recently is humility.
We should be grateful to Jim Collins for raising our consciousness about this trait with his concept of Level 5 Leadership--a person who combines great ambition for the organization with great personal humility. He offers a number of examples of leaders who missed this mark and those who hit the target, most famously, perhaps, Abraham Lincoln.
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin fleshes out Collins's sketch in a very entertaining and illuminating read. Lincoln certainly had great personal ambition. You don't become president without it. But his greater ambition was to preserve the Union, and if the only way to achieve that was for people to think he was a fool or for others to get the credit, he was prepared to do that.
This multiple biography compares and contrasts the lives of Lincoln and his cabinet--several of whom were prominent candidates for the Republican nomination in 1860. He deliberately put these people in positions of power because he knew he would need the broadest possible range of support to keep the country together. This caused him a lot of grief and trouble because often his cabinet members had their own agenda and actually worked against Lincoln and his policies. But it had the desired effect of holding the constituency of each rival together as much as possible when the nation was battling a near cataclysmic rift.
The temptation of all leaders is to make their mark, put their stamp on an organization, make significant changes that prove they had an impact. As Collins shows, this can often work against the long-term benefit of the company.
A teacher once told me, "Just because it's a cliché doesn't mean it's not true." One cliché that carries a lot of truth has been uttered in various forms by General George Marshall, John Wooden and Ronald Reagan. Harry Truman put it this way: "It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit."
To quote another cliché, easier said than done. But true success depends on it.