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Stay Humble, Stay Hungry

By MG John Gronski (USA, Ret.)

When I conduct leadership workshops or deliver keynotes focused on leadership, I am usually quick to point out that although I have led military and civilian organizations for over 40 years, I am still trying to develop myself to become a better leader.

I think humble leaders are effective leaders. When a leader has the humility to admit they do not have all the answers or that they made a mistake, they gain credibility with those they lead, and they also open their minds so they will be able to learn from the mistakes they made.

I have come across several examples of extremely successful leaders who have felt the same way.

Dan Cathy Stayed Curious

Dan Cathy, son of Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy, is now chairman of Chick-fil-A. He has been with Chick-fil-A for over 50 years. He was on the Tony Robbins podcast and was wearing his Chick-fil-A name tag. His nametag read: Dan Kathy, 50 Years Service, In Training. Dan went on to point out to Tony that he has “in training” emblazoned on his name tag because he is a champion of change and innovation. He said that if you are going to constantly change and innovate then you will constantly be in training, learning, and growing. Cathy went on to say that leaders must stay curious to be successful.

Bernie Marcus Admitted Mistakes

Cathy went on to tell a story about a conversation he had with Bernie Marcus, co-founder of Home Depot. Marcus said he used to start his management meetings on Monday mornings by recounting all the mistakes he had made the week before. It was a great display of vulnerability for Marcus to do that.

The reason Marcus felt this was important was to help the people he led learn from the mistakes he made so he could try to prevent them from making the same mistakes.  It also sent a message that transparency was an expected attribute and that it was ok to make an honest mistake if you admitted it, learned from it, and did not make the same mistake twice.

Darwin Smith Never Stopped Trying to Be Qualified for the Job

Another leader who displayed great humility and achieved great success as a CEO was Darwin Smith. Darwin Smith was named CEO of Kimberly-Clark in 1971. At that time Kimberly-Clark was a stodgy old paper company whose stock had fallen 36% behind the general market during the preceding 20 years. 

Smith had started out as an accountant and was never known as a charismatic leader. But from 1971 through 1991 Smith took the company from a basement dweller to one that owned Scott Paper and beat Procter and Gamble in six out of eight product categories.

When interviewed after his retirement in 1991 and asked about the secret to his success Smith answered, “I never stopped trying to be qualified for the job”.  This was the mark of a humble leader. Someone who never felt that they knew everything, even after transforming his company from an also-ran into an industry leader.

Humility vs. Ego

Humility and moral courage will beat ego and pride every time. Humility and moral courage are attributes of character-based servant leaders. Toxic leaders exhibit ego and pride in spades. A humble leader will acknowledge they made a mistake, will apologize when appropriate, and will take steps to correct the course they are on and make things right. Toxic leaders will allow ego and pride to get in the way. They will cover up mistakes, blame someone else, and fail to make things right. What type of leader do you want to work for? Perhaps a better question is, what type of leader do you want to strive to be?

You can learn more about the power of curiosity, humility, and emotional intelligence by enrolling in online leadership training here.

About John Gronski

Major General John L. Gronski (U.S. Army Retired) is the founder and CEO of Leader Grove LLC, a leadership consulting firm. John is the author of two books, “Iron-Sharpened Leadership” and “The Ride of Our Lives” and he is an international and Fortune 500 speaker. Learn more about John Gronski at https://johngronski.com/

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