When did humility fall off the leadership agenda?

Humility by Chidi Okoye

Setting: leadership development offsite workshop

Participants: 25 high potentials from a variety of companies

The topic: how leaders balance confidence and humility in context of Jim Collins’ level 5 leadership (“transformative executives possess a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will”)

The bottom line to this session blew me away:  only five people believed humility at work was an important leadership attribute. Talk about things that make one say “hmmmmmmmm!”

Collins wrote:

My preliminary hypothesis is that there are two categories of people: those who don’t have the Level 5 seed within them and those who do. The first category consists of people who could never in a million years bring themselves to subjugate their own needs to the greater ambition of something larger and more lasting than themselves. For those people, work will always be first and foremost about what they get—the fame, fortune, power, adulation, and so on. Work will never be about what they build, create, and contribute.

Here are the reasons given by workshop participants for not being interested in humility:

  • means you’re weak and incompetent
  • isn’t a leadership trait that would cause people to follow you
  • you won’t be given key assignments or promotions
  • you’re an introvert, can’t be counted on to speak up
  • your opinions are wishy-washy
  • means you make yourself vulnerable which doesn’t have a place at work

I’m fascinated by this feedback…what say you?


Teeball, leaders and reweaving the fabric of business

Ah, work/life boundaries — so tricky, so necessary, and so darn hard to manage for many reasons both personal and professional.

A female business colleague/friend and I were sharing personal insights for how we set (or don’t) boundaries for work and personal time. (Before I go on, I must raise my hand and confess, “I, Jane, am a workaholic” because this tendency plays a role in how my story unfolds.)

Insights from the stands

Over the last  six weeks, I attended twelve teeball games, two a week, all with 5:30 PM start times ( isn’t 5:30 PM the middle of the afternoon?!). There I saw my six-year-old grandson smile shyly yet proudly at us on the sidelines after his triumphant runs to first base. I could cheer him (and others) on in the process one charming little fellow so creatively named “first we hit, then we glove.”

To my second act of life way of thinking, this encouragement and our presence were acts of leadership development for those small girls and boys. We were helping them build self-confidence. Learn teamwork and sharing.  Begin to appreciate that others to have different skills and outlooks, and that is OK.

Going to those teeball games was also a commitment of time, I’m sad to say, that wouldn’t have happened in the first act of my life.

In that Corporate America part of my life, there was the ever-present, yet albeit covert, belief that individuals — especially women — who left work early for family reasons (things like 5:30 PM teeball games) “weren’t giving it their all” or were “unwilling to do what it takes.” Given my desire to succeed and those workaholic tendencies, I drank the corporate koolaid by the gallon. Not wanting anyone to say I wasn’t willing to do what it took, 70-80 hour work weeks were the norm. I used to joke that a 40-hour week was a part-time job. Ah, sick puppy.

Time for a new direction

Having emerged from my “corporate detox” period, I can more objectively look bac. Today I see the error of my ways. Back then, I set no boundaries. All work, very little play.  I allowed my work schedule and life to be influenced by those covert stereotypes. I own letting that happen.

But now, I also see how badly frayed the fabric of business practices is.  Spoken and unspoken expectations that enabled, no - encouraged, my nose-to-the-grindstone, crank-it-out work ethic. Organizational cultures where taking time away from the office to participate in activities like cheering on the next generation of leaders wasn’t valued. Where doing so, in fact, is negatively rewarded at review time for those bold and smart enough to set boundaries. I’m taking ownership to change this.

Along with Anne Perschel, I’ve been researching women in business and power. We’re ready to start reweaving the fabric of business so those teeball acts of leadership development and other changes can happen. For women. For men. For anyone interested in transforming the paradigms of business.

Ready to play?


The 7 C’s – A Mid-Year Leadership Checkup

Wow, it’s amazing that half a year has whizzed by!  Now is a great time for leaders to look back over those six months with a mini-assessment for lessons learned and wisdom gained. Then, take your insights and put them to good use in the second half of the year, focusing on using your head to manage and your head to lead.

The 7 C’s



Have I established my goals, both what I want to do and what I want to be?
Am I aware of my strengths, and do I put them to good use?
Am I tuned in to how I come across to others take that into account in how I interact and communicate with them?
Have I identified my purpose and passions?    
Do I take and make the time to fuel my purpose and passions in my daily living, either in doses large or small?
Do I make it a priority to make the time to connect with others so I understand their point of view?
Do I regularly engage in two-way dialogue?    
Do I share freely what I know to keep others in the loop?
Do I actively listen with my both my head and heart to what others have to say?
Do I stretch myself to the limits of my potential?    
Do I inspire those around me to do the same?    
Do I practice tough empathy on myself and those around me?    
Do I regularly smile and laugh and have fun both at work and at play?
Do I frequently recognize the accomplishments and contributions of others?
Have I mastered how much control I give to my inner critic?    
Have I learned to constructively work with ambiguity?
Do I give myself, and those around me, permission to learn through failing?
Have I chosen to be a person of integrity, never afraid to be found out?    
Do I treat those without power with the same respect I accord to the powerful?    
Do take the stand for what’s good and what’s right, even if doing so is unpopular?
Have I dedicated myself to finding connection, communicating, reaching for my potential, celebrating, and being courageous, sincere, caring and authentic?    

Power, politics and positivity

When you hear the words “power” and “office politics” do you shudder and say “ewwwww”?

Unfortunately, these terms derive their bad connotation from self-centered workplace schmoozers interested only in their own careers. And, sometimes it takes awhile for those less-than-stellar traits to surface. Penelope Trunk, author of “The Brazen Careerist” writes:

People are hired for what they know and fired for who they are.

However, choosing not to play office politics can be a contributing factor in getting a pink slip or in not being promoted. How can that be?

Why applying the skills of office politics in a good way is a good thing

Office politics is a workplace reality. Here’s a simple rule of thumb about whether politics exist at your company.

First, count the number of employees at your organization. If that number is greater than two, then office politics is a factor.

In fact, anytime there are scarce resources, competing interests and ambiguity, office politics will exist. But that’s not always a bad thing.

Office politics is ”The Force” from the Star Wars movies: there’s a light (positive) side and a dark (negative) side. It gets its bad name from people who are manipulators, backstabbers and who play the “I win, you lose” game. However, when executed correctly from a win-win perspective, office politics relies on collaboration, sharing, relationships and networking.

Competent people do politics so competently that it looks like being nice. If you have political skill, you appear to not have it. ~Gerald Ferris, psychology and management professor at Florida State University

Opting out of office politics doesn’t serve your career well. Being an effective leader requires you to champion your agenda, be it getting assigned to a special project or getting a bigger budget, and that requires use of the positive side of office politics (collaboration, sharing, relationships and networking).

Using a win-win approach is a make-or-break skill for doing well at work. Research from the Chartered Management Institute found that 88 percent of managers claimed to have honed their knowledge of politics through workplace mistakes. It’s easy to avoid making blunders on the job by keeping a few simple practices in mind.

Win-win office politicking skills

Be open to hearing other points of view, even if you disagree. Allowing someone to voice their opinion and really listening to what they have to say strengthens a relationship. Working from a win-win viewpoint also helps to build allies.

Be a broker of ideas and information. Willingly share what you know. Giving (without focusing on what you may get in return) bolsters your reputation and facilitates building your network.

Pay attention. Understand who the informal leaders in your organization are — those individuals whose opinion is sought by others because it is so respected and not necessarily because of their job title. Tap into their knowledge and their circle of influence.

Always credit “we” not “me.”

Build connections. Having a strong, strategic network goes beyond passing out and collecting business cards. Build and maintain relationships that are mutually beneficial. Staying in touch can be simple: share articles or send congratulatory e-mails.

Be sincere, be authentic and smile. People like to work with those whom they genuinely like (the one competently playing the “light” side of office politics).


Contrarians and the continuum of tolerance

A retired executive and I were meeting in one of those charming little independent coffee shops that are so conducive to great conversation. 

Leon and I met through the Chamber of Commerce.  What we have in common is a shared passion for leadership and the power of connection. Beyond that, our views of the world are widely different.  Oh…the other passion we share is debating.

The topic under debate: should there be contrarians in your inner circle — or not.

Leon’s view: people in your work and personal circles, like puzzle pieces, must always be a right fit – no compromises.  

My view: it’s perfectly fine to have a mismatched collection of people around you at work or play, provided there’s respect and tolerance for the difference of opinions.

Leon’s rationale: People whose beliefs, ideas, skills, values, etc. aren’t aligned with yours create discord and failed outcomes. Remove them from your life before they negatively impact your success and muddle your thinking.

My view: Contrarians bring a richness, a layer of complexity, that forces me to grow. I don’t always agree with what they have to say and sometimes find the discussion uncomfortable but that’s OK with me.

Leon and I are sitting on opposite ends of this continuum and would love to know where you sit!

Please share!


Leadership White Water: Fixing or Navigating

At the time it was so cool. Mostly because I wanted my Mom to do the same thing with me.

Our next door neighbor Mom gave her son, Grant, choices, and he got to pick.  Would you like macaroni and cheese or a hot dog for lunch?  Will we read a book today or go to the movies?  Do you want to sign up for riding camp or take piano lessons? There was no picking lunch food at our house.

Dad told me the Adam’s family had their own business.  Grant would run it someday. He needed to know how to make decisions, and his Mom was helping him learn how to do that. Wow, even cooler. No family owned biz for us.

After I grew up and went to work for companies other people owned, I appreciated how the Adams family had helped Grant learn to make decisions and problem solve. Important business skills to have.

Yet one day it hit me that the questions posed to young Grant were all either/or choices. Having learned more about business I wondered if being weaned on the “tyranny of the or” as James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras call it in Built to Last, caused Grant to grow up and be a leader who attacked business as a series of problems to be solved.  Or somewhere along the way had he learned about both/and?

Organizational success in the years ahead will hinge on the ability of employees at all levels to manage seemingly irreconcilable trade-offs – between short-term earnings and long-term growth, competition and collaboration, structure and emergence, discipline and freedom, and individual and team success.

~Gary Hamel, Harvard Business Review, Moon Shots for Management, February 2009

Problems and Polarities

I find it’s the rare leader who understand the difference between one-time problems and ongoing paradoxes.

Shifting funds to make next year’s business plan a reality is a problem to be solved:  either we spend money to upgrade the phone system now or we wait another year.

Maintaining an appropriate balance between cost and quality is a both/and polarity to be perpetually managed: what’s the best way to ensure a good customer experience and maintain a reasonable cost structure for doing so?  How do we get our management team to focus both on achieving results and establishing relationships with their teams?

Either/or problems have definite solutions and end dates, result in kudos for successful resolution, and allow us to check something off our to-do list. 

Both/and polarities are never-ending, an unappealing reality in a hurry-up-and-get-it-done world. They’re tricky to navigate because both answers are right.

Commit to doing both

As you think about your style, your orientation to life and business, ask yourself:

  • How will I recognize those situations that require an either/or solution and those that need a both/and approach, and handle both appropriately?
  • How can I both thoughtfully plan and drive action to achieve my goals?
  • What do I have to do to both manage and lead myself and others?
  • What steps must I take to have continuity and yet produce innovation?
  • What’s my plan for time for self-care and fulfilling the items on my to-do list?

Tricky waters to navigate for sure and so important to do so!


The irreconcilable trade-offs of leadership

Consider these words from Gary Hamel, ranked as one of the world’s most influential business thinkers by the Wall Street Journal.

Organizational success in the years ahead will hinge on the ability of employees at all levels to manage seemingly irreconcilable trade-offs – between short-term earnings and long-term growth, competition and collaboration, structure and emergence, discipline and freedom, and individual and team success.

Effectively managing these polarities requires top-notch leadership abilities – differentiating between either/or problems to be solved and both/and trade-offs to be perpetually managed. In Built to Last,  James Collins and Jerry Porras phrase it beautifully when they counsel to leaders to “avoid the tyranny of the OR and embrace the genius of the AND.” 

Besting those “irreconcilable trade-offs” requires leaders to demonstrate mastery of several personal both/and behaviors.

Confidence and humility.  Have enough self-confidence to recognize and appreciate your own self-worth, yet balance that with valuing and acknowledging the contributions of others.  It does take a village to lead.

Passion and caution.  Be filled with your purpose, and the thoughtfulness and awareness to know that others hold a different purpose.  Differences aren’t bad or wrong, just different.

Connect and challenge.  Connect with your strengths; understand your weaknesses, and use that wisdom to challenge yourself to live to your biggest and best potential. Do the same for those around you.

Pull and push.  Sometimes people need to see the light; other times they need to be the candle.  Help them either way.

Inquiry and advocacy.  Strive first to understand, and use your voice to promote, celebrate and teach others so they can live to their fullest potential.

Dream and do. Build those castles in the air; then jump off the cliff and make them happen.

Rejoice and reflect.  Look inward to understand the why, the why not and the how to be better. Celebrate often and share the joy, the pain, the silliness and wonderfulness of it all.

Sending smiles and inspiration to all!