The humility hack – the secret weapon of great CEOs

Everybody agrees that it’s good to be humble.

But why?

Mostly I think it’s because we believe humility is “nice”.  You are a “nice person” if you are humble.  You are kind, thoughtful, and gentle.  Never mind the fact that humility isn’t necessarily any of these things (it’s perfectly possible to be a humble asshole and an arrogant saint), the fact remains that we see humility as more of a style than an intellectual position.

The truth however is that humility is not simply a pleasant quality, but rather a technique.  A technique which is ineffective in some situations, but phenomenally effective in others.

It’s a technique which, in its rawest form, can be defined as:

Assuming you don’t understand the situation, and proceeding accordingly.

Note that it doesn’t necessarily mean thinking little of yourself, or believing yourself to be inadequate.  It just means operating from a starting perspective that you don’t know the answer.

This is not a good technique for a surgeon in an operating theatre, or a solider in the heat of battle, or any other high intensity do-or-die moment.  But elsewhere?  It’s pretty bloody powerful.

And nowhere is it more powerful than in the role of founder of CEO.

This is ironic of course, given that these are roles where humility is traditionally in short supply.  There’s some justification for this, given that these are leadership roles, and hence you need a degree of conviction to galvanise your team and take people with you.  To lead them into “battle”.  But in reality this is just a small part of a leader’s remit – 10% maybe.  For the rest of it?  Humility is essential.

Indeed I’d humbly suggest that its absence sits quietly behind every failure, every frustration, and every cock-up a leader is likely to encounter.

I say this not so much from my own personal experience as a founder, but instead from my experience of working with so many of them.  I have seen with my own eyes that there is a hard correlation between founder humility, and the pace of growth.  Between a founder’s propensity to speak in questions rather than declarations, and the impact their brand makes on the world.

There are three primary reasons for this – and as you shall see none of them have anything to do with being “nice”.

I. The founder is the dumbest person in the room

One of the stupidest statements you’ll ever encounter in business is “the founder knows their business best”; or even worse, “I KNOW MY BUSINESS BEST”.

Of course this is true when it comes to basic facts – the names of your team, what the P&L looks like, etc. – but it’s the opposite of true when it comes to the much bigger question of knowing what the business is, and how it works in the world.

In the case of founders in particular, they are literally the one person on the planet who is totally incapable of seeing their business with an objective external perspective.  They have never been outside it, and never will, not even after they’ve left it.  They will forever be operating behind a blindfold – a blindfold made of their assumptions, prejudices, intentions, and biases.

Great leaders know this, which is why they hold their opinions lightly, and are quick to question themselves to get a better grasp of reality.

They are the brains and the heart of the business.  But they are not the eyes and the ears.

II. Strategy is reactive

One of the most important underlying principles of strategic thinking – in all fields – is our completely inability to predict.  Reality is chaotic, we have no idea how our plans will play out when released into the wild, and we will never unpick all the variables which contribute to success or failure.

What this means on a practical level is that we must build our strategy by adapting to feedback.  By listening to the business and going where it wants to go, rather than insisting on our fixed vision.  By being fluid rather than rigid.

Of course you need the vision to get the ball rolling – but the vision must then negotiate with the world if it is ever to be accepted, and bloom into something even greater.

Leaders without humility don’t understand this, and believe that strategy means deciding on what you want to happen, and then forcing it into existence.  This is the business equivalent of King Canute placing his throne on the beach and commanding the tide not to rise.

Not only ineffective, but embarrassing.

III. Curiosity is genius

Finally, and perhaps most obviously, humility is inextricably bound with curiosity.

If you believe you don’t know, you will be curious.

If you believe you do know, then you won’t.

Stands to reason right?

Well what kind of leader would we be without curiosity?  Without curiosity there is no learning.  There is no discovery.  There is no insight.  There are no breakthroughs.

Without curiosity, where will our competitive advantage come from?  How will we uncover that little thing, that secret, which we know but nobody else has grasped yet?

All these great leaders, innovators, and geniuses of the past were really just one thing: curious.  The more curiosity you have, the deeper you will look, and the more you will see.  It’s a pretty straightforward equation.

You know, I’m sure some people, when I talk about the genius of humble CEOs will immediately jump to the objection “oh yeah what about Steve Jobs? He was an arrogant asshole, and he was the greatest of all time”.  Well what is one of Jobs’ most famous quotations?

“Stay hungry. Stay foolish. Stay curious.”

It was the punchline of the most famous speech he ever did, his Stanford commencement address.  Without humility, where was this curiosity coming from?  Or, for that matter, the hunger and foolishness?

Jobs’ genius didn’t come from being an asshole.  It came from being a humble asshole – an extraordinarily unusual combination which combines strategic insight and visionary conviction in equal measure.


Bottom line, I don’t want to moralise.  I’ve no right to do so.  You can be as big a pain in the ass as you like.

But for God’s sake, be humble.

Not because it’s nice, but because it works.

Practice it like a skill.  Hone it, strengthen it, deepen it.  And as you do, the fruits of insight will start to blossom.

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