The four keys to personal humility

Dec 03 2015 by John Blakey Print This Article

Some weeks ago, my Vistage CEO advisory group were treated to a session with Carole Gaskell, a coach, entrepreneur and speaker. It was inspiring watching Carole engage the group; she ‘walked the talk’ by coaching them through a learning cycle rather than putting on a showy performance.

Though she was one of the most under-stated speakers we have engaged, Carole achieved the highest feedback scores from the group. One of the members commented, “Carole role-modelled Jim Collins’ level 5 leadership: she exuded professional will and personal humility”.

His observation reminded me that the level 5 leadership model Collins explored in ‘Good to Great’ applies equally to leaders and to speakers and coaches too.

Based on a five year research project, Collin’s concluded that the most effective leaders have a paradoxical combination of what he termed ‘intense professional will and extreme personal humility’. These leaders were able to transform companies from good to great where ‘great’ was defined as outperforming the US stock market by an average 6.9 times over a period of fifteen years.

Of the 1,435 companies that appeared on the Fortune 500 in the period 1965 to 1995, only 11 achieved this outcome. To illustrate his point, Collins cited the leader of Kimberley-Clark, Darwin Smith, who was CEO of the company for 20 years. In this period, Smith transformed Kimberley-Clark into the leading consumer paper products company in the world generating shareholder returns of 4.1 times those of the general market. Collins describes Smith in the following way:-

“Compared with those [high profile] CEOs, Darwin Smith seems to have come from Mars. Shy, unpretentious, even awkward, Smith shunned attention. When a journalist asked him to describe his management style, Smith just stared back at the scribe from the other side of his thick black-rimmed glasses…Finally, after a long and uncomfortable silence, he said, “Eccentric.” Needless to say, the Wall Street Journal did not publish a splashy feature on Darwin Smith.”

In commenting on the difference between level 4 and level 5 leaders, Collins concluded that level 4 leaders can sometimes generate short term financial success through the power of their personal egos yet they struggle to sustain this success over the longer term. Furthermore, level 4 leaders struggle to handover successfully when they step down from the CEO role because they create a dependency upon their own talents and confidence.

The transition from level 4 to level 5 is about choosing personal humility over personal glory. Collins described four attributes that evidence that choice:

  • Demonstrating a compelling modesty, shunning public adulation and never being boastful
  • Acting with quiet, calm determination and motivating others through inspired standards not inspiring charisma
  • Channelling ambition into the company, not the self, and so setting up successors for even more greatness in the next generation.
  • Looking in the mirror, not out of the window, when apportioning responsibility for poor performance

Reflecting upon Carole’s presence as a speaker and coach, I recalled that, when she engaged the CEO group, she lived up to the above standards through the following important details:

  • She did not linger on her own story as a successful entrepreneur and CEO
  • She stayed seated, still and calm rather than marching around the room with exaggerated gestures and dramatic interventions
  • She was focussed upon the group and their needs not her own agenda
  • She took responsibility for the collective learning experience rather than basking in her own masterful performance

So our challenge is to reflect on how level 5 leadership shows up throughout our lives not just in the formal leadership role. What does it mean to be a level 5 speaker or coach? What does it mean to be a level 5 father, mother or friend? What does it mean to demonstrate professional will and personal humility, not as an isolated leadership technique, but as a personal mantra for living?

About The Author

John Blakey
John Blakey

John Blakey is an executive coach and co-author of the critically acclaimed Challenging Coaching. A former FTSE100 Managing Director, he has helped over 120 CEOs from 22 different countries achieve their goals. His new book, The Trusted Executive, examines how leaders can create a strategy for building trust in an increasingly sceptical world.