How Do You Teach Humility?

Business Leader Post, March 28, 2012

Thomas D. Davidow, Ed.D.

In Jim Collins’ article, “Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve,” published in the Harvard Business Review in 2001, he wrote that out of the 1435 Fortune 500 companies that he researched to determine what companies went from “Good to Great”, eleven companies qualified. What those eleven companies had in common was a Level 5 Leader, and what those leaders had in common was the character trait of humility.

Collins’ findings seemed counter–intuitive to me until I thought about the characteristics and personalities of the many family business leaders with whom I have worked. My experience is that the founding generation had a much higher percentage of humility than other generations, but that the percentage of leaders in family businesses who had humility was significantly higher than the eleven out 1435 Fortune 500 companies.

I am not sure why or if in fact that it is true and suggesting that it is fact or reasons why it might be true without proper research would be presumptuous.

I do know, however, that the senior generation talks a lot about how the next generation is bright, competent etc.; but they also worry that the next generation seems to be missing that sense of humility which they understand to be a key ingredient for success—not only as a leader of the family company, but as a human being as well. They worry a lot about how to help their children/future generations of business leaders mature and grow personally as well as professionally.

You cannot teach humility, but you can refuse to protect your children from failure. Life can be cruel, but it is also fair in the sense that nobody—I do not care who you are or what your background is—nobody escapes the scary, awful, difficult reality that one has no control over events, except for the decision as to how to respond to those events.

In the same article, Collins also shares that each of the Level 5 Leaders had an emotional life changing event. My advice then is that when your kids experience one of those events, although you will be there, of course, they have to pull themselves up by themselves. If you do not let them do that, you are denying them the opportunity to experience the humility that comes with overcoming great odds.

The interesting thing is that when you talk to people about overcoming great odds, they always say that they did not do it alone.