On May 9, 2014, there was an interesting article that appeared in the Times of India, “Humility makes CEOs from India Stand Out”, which hypothesized that the ascent of Indian origin leaders as CEOs in global corporations is related to Indians being humble by nature. The reference has been, among others, to Indra Nooyi, Chairperson of Pepsi, Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, Nitin Nohria, Dean of Harvard and Rajiv Suri, CEO of Nokia Networks. There is no doubt that persons from outside the Western world would find it hard to reach apex positions in Western headquartered global corporations. This is as unsurprising as a Western executive finding it difficult to be at the helm of a Japanese corporation. National culture has probably has as much role as notional competence in influencing leadership choices. The ascent of Indians to CEO positions is, therefore, remarkable and noteworthy.
The article quotes Govind Iyer, managing director of Egon Zehnder India, a leading executive search firm as stating that humility is the key to being a respected leader as that means the leader is receptive towards learning and professional growth. He also clarifies that humility does not mean one cannot be aggressive and extrovert. He emphasizes that these qualities need to be displayed with humility. Rajiv Burman, managing director of Lighthouse Partners, another executive search firm hypothesizes in the article that given the strong emphasis in the Indian culture on family and social relationships, the Indian leaders work very effectively in groups with humility. Vivek Chandra, country manager-India, Harvard Business Publishing considers that leaders who develop higher self-awareness tend to be more humble. In the same article, Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice is quoted as saying that emphasis on authenticity and inner journey is a characteristic of changing leadership expectations.
Hard and soft
Leaders are expected to lead. It is therefore believed that leaders must exert their presence with knowledge, expression and execution through which they must be able to influence and align their followers. Aggression and extroversion, enjoying success every bit openly, are also considered good additions to a successful leadership profile. These may well be the ‘hard’ qualities that define leadership. Leadership built only on these hard factors tends to be vulnerable to performance dips even if performance drivers are beyond the leader’s control. Leaders need certain ‘soft’ qualities that help the leaders go beyond driving and influencing. Soft qualities are those that endear leaders to their followers. They help the leaders connect with their followers and even non-followers sustainably. Mahatma Gandhi is an enduring example of soft qualities adding sheen and sustainability to leadership. Humility has been the most prominent of Gandhi’s soft leadership qualities.
The role of humility in influencing leadership development is not well understood. Humility is the quality of being humble. Humility is the quality of thinking that one is not better than others (although one’s achievements or others’ opinions may imply so). One’s humility is never expressed but is invariably felt and experienced by others. Humility can never be a sign of weakness or passivity rather it stems out of one’s conviction and courage, in a sense. Winston Churchill stated that while it requires courage to stand up and speak out it also requires courage to sit down and listen. This is an interesting concept. Individuals who are humble to face constructive challenges are often able to discover their own abilities or learn new capabilities that help manage them. The earlier discussed aspect of self-awareness is the foundation for developing authenticity which is capped by humility.
Awareness and self-awareness
The author in two of his earlier blog posts discussed aspects of awareness and self-awareness. These are “Self-actualization by One’s Self for Oneself: An Enlightened Process for the Elusive Goal”, Strategy Musings, April 21, 2013 (http://cbrao2008.blogspot.in/2013/04/self-actualization-by-ones-self-for.html), and “Awareness and Resilience Management (ARM): Arming for Success and Happiness in Life”, Strategy Musings, February 3, 2013 (http://cbrao2008.blogspot.in/2013/02/awareness-and-resilience-management-arm.html). These blog posts discussed the approaches for self-awareness. The blog posts focused on individuals in a broader perspective rather than on leaders, per se (individuals, of course are leaders, and vice versa). There are two interesting concepts that the author would like to propose in this blog post. The first is whether an increase in awareness leads to a correlated increase in self-awareness. The second is whether self-awareness is enhanced or impeded by awareness, especially at leadership level.
As regards the first, the comprehensiveness of one’s awareness largely determines how well awareness leads to self-awareness. If one, for example, gets focused only on material aspects of professional life or personal life, it is unlikely that one would be appreciating the need for self-awareness. Self-awareness has a significant philosophical and spiritual content of which one would need to be aware of; this helps one to be appreciative of the need for self-awareness, and the paths towards that. As regards the second, individuals tend to lose self-awareness as they become more aware of the material aspects of success or failure. Success blinds one to one’s weaknesses and the need to overcome them while failure may cause one to lose confidence in one’s strengths and remain vulnerable to one’s weaknesses. As one moves on the leadership journey or the broader life journey, one would need to recognize development of self-awareness as an important component of developing awareness.
Outcomes as inputs
While awareness and self-awareness can be developed as conscious processes, outcomes are important inputs in the awareness journey. The simplest example of outcome-driven awareness development is the examination system. The success or failure, and the rank achieved in each case acts as a trigger for enhancing one’s awareness. As one moves from broad generic school level courses to more focused college and university courses, and thereafter to industrial, business or academic employment aptitude tests help develop self-awareness. Outcomes in work environment and in leadership journey become harder to relate, despite all the efforts to define accountability and responsibility. Individuals would need to possess an elevated and discerning sense of outcomes as related to their contributions or non-contributions as part of the self-awareness journey.
At individual level, there are three imperatives for awareness and self-awareness balance. The first is a determination to be aware and self-aware. This can be achieved through a quest for all-round knowledge on one hand and an openness of mind on the other hand. Curricular and extracurricular learning and on-work and off-work learning need to be strong components of the awareness processes. The second is an ability to be sensitive to quantitative and qualitative cues. The second is achieved through a conscious processing of the external realities and underlying drivers. The third is a willingness to introspect oneself vis-à-vis expectations and improve to set right expectations and achieve right results. Awareness without self-awareness could be misleading while self-awareness without awareness could be paralytic. Both need to coexist in a virtuous humility canopy.
Awareness which leads to knowledge and competencies, and self-awareness which leads to self-improvement are the ideal combination to make an individual or a leader hugely successful. The key to sustaining such success lies in humility; humility that teaches one that success need not be worn on one’s sleeve, humility that teaches that failure is a result of lack of humility, humility that teaches that there can always be scope for self-improvement, humility that teaches one to respect others, and humility that enables development of bigger individuals or leaders than oneself. It is important to note that if power and presence are required in certain contexts, they are effectively provided by stature and humility as much as by knowledge and execution. In a recent pre-launch curtain raiser of his animation super movie Kochadaiiyaan 3D (Vikram Simha in Telugu), the superstar and hero of the movie, Rajinikanth said that Kamal Hassan was a great technical actor who was perhaps the right one for such a technical movie (dubbed as India’s first performance capture photorealistic film) but God has desired that Rajini should do that. The humility of the superstar was not lost on the huge audience.
Like most emotions or soft skills, humility also can be affected and not real. Individuals can put up a charade of humility. However, authentic humility is easily distinguished from affected humility. Self-awareness is the key to genuine humility. It enables people to overcome their shortcomings through greater and better awareness, and appreciate others’ superiority or need for support to others. A self-aware leader creates success by working with and leveraging the capabilities of others capable peers. Mahatma Gandhi’s humility helped him reach out to the nation on one hand and work with other capable leaders on the other. At the institutional level as well, successful institutions which are humble are likely to achieve far greater and sustainable success than other institutions which are smug on success or impervious to criticism. If Toyota had to face unexpected recalls it was due to a belief that the best was always being done and if Toyota still retained brand equity and went on to achieve a global record production nearly of 10 million vehicles last year, the reason lies in its humility to accept that even the best was not good enough, and there was scope for self-improvement.
Posted by Dr CB Rao on May 11, 2014