5 Traits Of Highly Humbitious Leaders

My aim in the last few blogs was to show how a wide range of high-powered executives embraced a new leadership mindset to meet a wide range of high stakes challenges. For all of the variety in the stories and settings, though my aim was also to deliver a consistent message for executives, entrepreneurs, and innovators of all stripes who face the responsibility (and burden) of generating breakthrough ideas and delivering outsized results. That message: you can’t do new and exciting things with your organization, especially under difficult conditions, with the same old assumptions about what it means to lead.

Think back to the Economist essay I previously referenced. Its fondness for old-school titans of industry and larger-than-life moguls was yet another expression of the Great Man theory of history. The essay trumpeted the virtues of geniuses such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Jack Welch (there were no women among its roster of heroes) and then generalized from these (and earlier) movers and shakers. Is this truly the face of leadership at its best? “The best ambassadors for business,” the magazine insisted, “are the outsized figures who have changed the world and who feel no need to apologise for themselves or their calling.” I am sorry but I don’t think so. The best executives and entrepreneurs I’ve met understand that there is a vast difference between championing ambitious goals – aspiring to change the game in your company or your field – and assuming that you know best how to achieve those goals. Fierce personal confidence, a sense of infallibility as a leader, used to be a calling card of success. Today it is a warning sign of failure, whether from bad judgment, low morale among disillusioned colleagues, or burnout from the pressures of always having to be right.

There’s a reason Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind titled their bestseller on the Enron disaster The Smartest Guys in the Room, and it goes beyond the arrogance, hubris, and criminality those deeply flawed executives displayed. That phrase captures the mindset that too many of us expect even our most honest leaders to display – the assumption that being ‘in charge’ means having all the answers. It may be lonely at the top, but executives who insist on solving problems or devising strategies on their own have no one but themselves to blame when they don’t look so smart after all.

Don’t get the wrong idea: I’m not making the case that leaders are better off aiming low or being dull. That’s a false choice as well as a ridiculous reading of history. Yes, game-changing executives champion new ideas and disruptive points of view – they have a compelling vision for the future. But that doesn’t mean they have to (or expect to) see the future by themselves. Instead, they understand how to solve problems and make things happen in a world where no one-not even them- can expect to have all the answers. What follows, then, is a set of attributes to encourage you to challenge your own ideas and assumptions about what it means to lead. Or, as I like to think of them, the five traits of highly humbitious executives.

Instead, they recognize that in an interconnecting world busting with small, well-trained, enthusiastic people, the most powerful ideas often come from the most unexpected places: the quiet genius locked deep inside the organization, the collective genius that surrounds the organization, the hidden genius of customers, suppliers, and other constituencies who would be happy to share what the know if they were asked. That’s the mindset of executives who figure out how to get killer results without killing themselves, and the difference, in the favorite phrase of longtime IBMer Jane Harper, between raw ambition and open-minded humbition. Rite Solutions is an organization who gets it – they have established a ‘stock market’ internally for idea generation. The founders of Rite-Solutions have seen this same phenomenon play out in their company’s Mutual Fun stock market. Employees aren’t encouraged to limit proposals to technologies, business ideas, or cost-saving techniques in their field of expertise. Quite the contrary. Time and again, employees see possibilities for the company that have little or nothing to do with their function or department – and everything to do with the unpredictable nature of how and when fresh insights materialize. Since the stock market allows these grassroots innovators to post their ideas, and then enables colleagues with the necessary skills and experiences to invest in and work on the ideas which enables blue-sky thinking and roll up the sleeves execution.

There is a reason so many of the initiatives I have put forward in recent blogs, encouraged participants not just to contribute ideas, but also to vote on ideas submitted by others. As hard as it is to unleash a wave of fresh thinking about a tough problem or a big opportunity, it’s just as hard to make sense of all the creativity you encounter. As creativity guru Keith Sawyer notes, “The real challenge to creativity isn’t only quantity; many managers are fond of saying that ‘ideas are cheap.’ Just as important is that, eventually someone has to pick the best ideas.” Which is why, humbitious leaders don’t just encourage lots of different people to become part of the idea generation process – they give them a voice in the decision making process as well.

So a big challenge for leaders who want to get the best ideas from the most people is to figure out what to do with all the ones that aren’t so great. How do you turn down bad ideas without creating bad blood among the people who come up with them? That was fairly easy for Netflix CEO Reed Hastings. The competition for the Netflix prize was literally a math problem, so his company could publish a frequently updated leaderboard that showed the top-ranked entrants, when their solutions were submitted, and how well their algorithms performed against the 10-percent-improvement target. Participants always knew where they stood, because Netflix was always keeping score and posting the results.

Ever since the publication, over two decades ago of Peter Senge’s monumental bestseller The Fifth Discipline, we’ve been in the age of the ‘learning organization’. Smart leaders have come to understand that for their organisations to stay ahead of the competition, they and their people have to learn more (and more quickly) than the competition: new skills, new takes on emerging technologies, new ways to do old things, from manufacturing to marketing to R&D. It’s hard to argue with this love of learning: that’s precisely what makes humbition such an important leadership quality. But one thing I’ve learned is that the most humbitious leaders and organisations – those most eager to learn from others – also tend to be the best teachers, the most eager to share with others. Both IBM (via innovation jams) and Rite-Solutions (via internal stock market) have developed powerful techniques for harvesting great ideas from unexpected places – a big source of competitive advantage. And better still, these organisations are eager to share these techniques with all.

If you agree (as I do) with creativity guru Keith Sawyer that “innovation cant be planned, it cant be predicted, it has to be allowed to emerge,” then you should also agree that the ultimate opportunity for leaders is to allow as many participants as possible to emerge as leaders. That’ the key lesson behind the long-term success of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. It would be a neat trick for a group of accomplished musicians to come together once or twice and delight an audience at Carnegie Hall by performing without a conductor. But for a conductorless organization to maintain a track record of excellence for more than thirty-five years, to tour the world, to release more than seventy recordings and to win Grammys is pretty clear evidence that something powerful is at work. As Professor Richard Hackman points out, the real genius of Orpheus is not that it has figured out how to play without a conductor as the all-knowing leader. It’s that it has turned so many frontline players into real leaders and devised a system of “rotational leadership” that allows just the right people to exercise leadership at the right time.

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