The Rise Of Humbition

In last week’s blog freedom is a bigger game than power we looked at how business culture is enamored with the lone genius clothed as a CEO. The counter position explored is to deliver “Killer Results Without Killing Yourself.”That is a challenge with which so many executives in so many fields continue to struggle. I was fortunate to have a mentoring call with Matt Church where one of the key topics of conversation was rather than looking at duality, where possible a ‘third dimension’ should be explored. With this in mind, a possible answer to that challenge is to recognize that the best way to deliver on an ambitious agenda for your organization is to embrace a sense of ‘humbition’ in your personal style and as part of your leadership repertoire.

What’s humbition? It is a term I first heard from a savvy change agent (and self described ‘possibilitarian’) named Jane Harper, a thirty-year veteran of IBM who devoted her career to transforming how this once-famously top-down organization, founded by the larger-than-life Thomas Watson, approached innovation, collaboration, and leadership.

Humbition, Harper explains, is the blend of humility and ambition that drives the most successful businesspeople – an antidote to the hubris that infects (and undoes) so many executives and entrepreneurs. The smartest business leaders, she argues, are smart enough to admit that they cannot take all the credit for their success. More likely than not, what they’ve achieved is some combination of good fortune, great colleagueship, and the random collision of smart people and bright ideas. Or as Matt Church suggests the third dimension between humility and hubris. A rare occurrence.

In a manifesto of sorts that urged up-and-coming IBMers to embrace a new leadership mind-set, Harper and a group of her colleagues offered a compelling description of what it takes to succeed in a complex, fast-moving, hard to figure out world. Their strongly worded advice to aspiring leaders inside IBM should read as words of wisdom to aspiring leaders inside IBM should be read as words of wisdom for leaders at every level of all kinds of organization. 

“Humbition is one part humility and one part ambition,”they wrote: “We notice that by far the lion’s share of world-changing luminaries are humble people. They focus on the work, not themselves. They seek success – they are ambitious – but they are humbled when it arrives. They know that much of that success was luck, timing, and a thousand factors out of their personal control. They feel lucky, not all-powerful. Oddly, the ones operating under a delusion that they are all-powerful are the ones who have yet to reach their potential…so be ambitious. Be a leader. But don’t belittle others in your pursuit of your ambitions. Raise them up instead. The biggest leader is the one washing the feet of the others.”

There are plenty of smart thinkers who echo Jane Harper’s case against the know-it-all style of leadership. Keith Sawyer, a professor and creativity guru at Washington University has written a book on where good ideas come from. In Group Genius, he emphasizes the relationship between innovation and improvisation – and explains how few leaders are prepared to recognize the messy and hard-to-manage truth about the real logic of business success. That’s why Sawyer became intrigued with jazz ensembles and improvisation groups. Their styles of communication, interaction, and collaboration, he argues, are more in sync with the surprising ways in which progress gets made in the real world.

Translation: The most effective leaders no longer want the job of solving their organisation’s biggest problems or identifying its best opportunities. Instead, they recognize that the most powerful ideas can come from the most unexpected places: the quiet genius buried deep inside the organization; the collective genius that surrounds the organization; the hidden genius of customers, suppliers, and other constituencies who would be eager to share what they know if only they were asked. That’s the difference between success and failure today, and the distinction between unchecked ambition and sustainable humbition. In their manifesto for hard-charging IBMers, Jane Harper and her colleagues put it this way: “We’ve all seen managers and executives that rely on authority to motivate people. We don’t want any more of those. Don’t become one…Motivate people by your passion, by your insights, and most importantly, by your willingness to listen to them.”

This new philosophy of leadership doesn’t just help to produce killer results – it helps you to avoid killing yourself, as you struggle to solve problems that are tougher than ever, capitalize on opportunities that are bigger than ever, and navigate a business landscape that is more treacherous than ever. Keith Sawyer offers a bracing corrective to executives and entrepreneurs who insist on holding on to unhealthy and unproductive ideas about what it means to charge. “We’re drawn to the image of the lone genius whose mystical moment of insight changes the world,” he argues.“But the lone genius is a myth; instead it’s group genius that generates breakthrough innovation. When we collaborate, creativity unfolds across people; the sparks fly faster, and the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” Or as Matt Church implores: Rise Up

If you feel it is time to Rise Up, to find your voice…there is now better opportunity or avenue than to enroll in Matt Church’s legendary Speakership. It’s Time.

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