Humility as a Strategic Necessity

We prize decisiveness and a sense of command in leaders. But knowing when to ease up on those traits is an important skill too.

There are two iron laws when it comes to cocktail parties, I’ve learned. First, at some point everybody winds up crowded in the kitchen, no matter how much space the host has to work with. Second, there’s at least one person in the room who gives off a sticky know-it-all vibe, pontificating to disinterested but patient/trapped people about how well-informed he or she is on a particular subject. (I don’t absolve myself from this failing; at some point you may have been the victim of my strong opinions about 80s hair metal. Sorry.)

 If we had tried to guide this too much … we’d have a much more difficult time doing what we’ve done here.

All of which is to say that smart leaders are sometimes tripped up by their own intelligence: It’s their job to be an authority about how best to run an organization, but they also need to be diplomatic about how they brandish that authority. Servant Leadership theory touches on this issue, stressing as it does that you’re not in charge of people so much as the other way around. I was interested in seeing how it recently played out in a more concrete way for a group of associations in Montana.

In the June Associations Now, I wrote about a group of education associations in the state that recently came together to help craft and promote school-funding reform legislation. The effort was led by the Montana School Boards Association (MTSBA), which helped generate videos and present factsheets (PDF) about the initiative. MTSBA executive director Lance Melton took the lead on the effort, building on his organization’s experience with strategic planning. But one thing he stressed is that the effort wouldn’t have worked if he displayed any swagger about that experience.

“We felt it was important not to create and serve this to somebody else, but to invite peer organizations to engage in a process with us,” Melton said. “That was the key. If we had tried to guide this too much, or bring people in late in the game, we’d have a much more difficult time doing what we’ve done here.”

That approach worked: Last month Montana’s governor signed the bill the coalition had lobbied for. That certainly required all the shoe leather, elbow grease, and all the other metaphorical representations of hard work that you can imagine. But it also required a capacity for MTSBA to hold back, listen, and not force the conversation to go in a particular direction.

Part of what helped that happen, Melton suggests, was not getting invested in the success of the legislation itself but instead focusing on the coalition that helped craft it. “I don’t quantify success based on whether the bill passes or fails,” Melton told me while the bill was still making its way through the statehouse. That’s smart strategy: A recognition that the “win” in this case isn’t the governor signing a piece of legislation so much as the coalition being able to stay together to work on important problems in the future.

In their book Execution, Ram Charan and former Honeywell CEO Larry Bossidy wrote this about humility: “The more you can contain your ego, the more realistic you are about your problems. You learn how to listen, and admit that you don’t know all the answers. You exhibit the attitude that you can learn from anyone at any time. Your pride doesn’t get in the way of gathering the information you need to achieve the best results. It doesn’t keep you from sharing the credit that needs to be shared. Humility allows you to acknowledge your mistakes.

Handy advice, whether you’re running your own organization, or trying to get six of them to work together. If you have a story to share about how you pulled it off, let us know in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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