The Leadership Paradox: Boldness & Humility.

“We must understand that those who follow us expect us to lead with confidence, even as we are on our knees before God.”
— Dr. Merlin Switzer, "Bold Leadership"

"People generally assume that transforming companies from good to great requires larger-than-life leaders—big personalities like Lee Iacocca, Al Dunlap, Jack Welch, and Stanley Gault, who make headlines and become celebrities. Compared with those CEOs, Darwin Smith seems to have come from Mars. Shy, unpretentious, even awkward, Smith shunned attention.... But if you were to consider Smith soft or meek, you would be terribly mistaken."

Jim Collins uses the above to introduce his readers (in the iconic Good to Great) to the brilliant leader of Kimberly-Clark who turned it into the leading global consumer paper products company in the 70s and 80s. Collins used Smith as an example of "Level 5 leadership," individuals who blend extreme personal humility with intense professional will.

Quite the paradox, don't you think? It reads well...but lives hard. What does it really look like to lead your company or your department with that magical combination of boldness and humility? Many corporate cultures embrace the bold part but have little use for the humble part. If we're honest, the two can feel mutually exclusive. But leaders of integrity know intuitively that Collins is right--it takes both to be a highly effective leader. Let's explore some possible applications for that big idea:

  • B & H leaders are tenacious for culture. This is a matter of core identity, and leaders must know this backwards and forwards. Culture is that blend of values, character, and behavior that is non-negotiable and must be maintained boldly.
  • B & H leaders cast bold vision. Great leaders must hold and protect an internal vision for the future--and consistently call the team toward that future reality. This is the other leadership non-negotiable; everything else is fair game.
  • B & H leaders are quick to admit mistakes. The confidence and security of a great leader make it easy to admit mistakes and take responsibility for failures without wavering on the enduring mission.
  • B & H leaders are flexible on strategy. Once vision and culture are secure, then how you get there is the product of group ingenuity and passionate debate. Great leaders cultivate innovation and collaboration and don't insist on their own ideas.
  • B & H leaders deflect the credit. When the team succeeds, great leaders dodge the spotlight and direct attention to the contribution of others.

So how do you blend boldness and humility in your leadership? What have you learned that could inspire the rest of us?


Posted on August 19, 2014 .