Corporate Leaders: Eat More Humble Pie
“The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The leader adjusts the sails.”
At MWW, we counsel our corporate clients to keep one fundamental axiom in mind: people trust people, not companies. An organization’s leadership is on the front line of the reputation game. You can build the best widget or provide the best service, but if your company’s senior leaders convey the wrong values or point of view, your stakeholders will move in another direction.
If 2013 was a rocky year for corporate leaders – think Chip Wilson’s curious remarks about Lululemon’s customer base or the personal tribulations of Google co-founder Sergey Brin – it’s encouraging to find a rising corporate star who promises to be a beacon to American business leaders.
Enter Microsoft’s new CEO, Satya Nadella. To be sure, the naysayers have their doubts: could an understated 46-year-old Indian immigrant known for quiet collaboration have what it takes to corral the cowboys of America’s hyper-completive corporate sector and, in the process, reawaken a slumbering tech giant?
Only time will tell, but for now I am grateful that the decision is shining a light on the importance of one of the most overlooked and under-appreciated traits of leadership: HUMILITY.
Everything about Nadella’s leadership style defies the Type-A, in-your-face demeanor that conventional wisdom (incorrectly) holds as essential for those seeking to “right the ship.” It may sell books and earn magazine covers to bully, belittle and berate, but history has shown us time and again that brute force bows to humble strength. Don’t believe me? Check Wikipedia for bios of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Malala Yousafzai.
In the spirit of this counter-intuitive argument, let me highlight some of the “don’ts” of good corporate leadership, rather (as is more usual) the “dos”.
You don’t need to be the loudest (or smartest) person in the room.
All great leaders have a strategy: don’t be afraid to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. Let their strengths complement yours. Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know” and take time to listen to the answer. Whether in a meeting, correcting a failing strategy or providing feedback, those “in charge” need not constantly remind everyone around them that they are (yes, we know…) in charge. Let silence invite opinion. You’ll be surprised at how much you can learn.
Don’t let it get unprofessional. EVER.
Leadership comes in all shapes and sizes, but make no mistake: the quiet leader is not the weak one. A confident leader is comfortable resolving conflict, not manufacturing it. As a leader, you’re responsible for setting the tone for an organization’s culture and behaviors. Treating colleagues with respect at all times is the gold standard, and the example begins at the top. An effective general once said, “You manage things, you lead people,” so showing your human side when dealing with colleagues is important. Show empathy and respect and you’ll get it back.
It will be interesting to see how Microsoft navigates the choppy waters of change over the next 100 days. We’ll surely continue to hear pessimists spread doubt about Nadella’s unassuming style – but sometimes it takes quiet strength to reset the sails.