A small reminder to Silicon Valley: In researching nearly 1500 companies and leaders for his best-selling leadership book, Good to Great, author Jim Collins discovered humility to be the X factor of great leadership.
Too often tech startup culture gets caught up in the bravado of “crushing”, “disrupting”, “paradigm-shifting”, or “becoming the next unicorn.” And all to easily founder confidence morphs into founder arrogance. Unfortunately, we all know stories about founders who let their egos get the best of them.
It’s much harder practice humility, as it means you must also practice vulnerability.
Staying humble means being aware of, and admitting, what you don’t know. It means being ok making mistakes and asking for help. When you are humble you open yourself up to continuous growth and learning, and you prime yourself to handle the inevitable lows of startup life with grace and dignity.
Being humble as a leader makes you more relatable and approachable. In turn, it creates a more humanistic work environment where your employees will feel more comfortable being open, taking risks and showing vulnerability.
Becoming a Servant Leader
Those that are well-versed at practicing humility tend to see their position of leadership differently.
Servant leadership is a form of leadership, or a philosophy, in which CEOs view themselves in service to those below them. Instead of viewing their perch as power or a way to control people and outcomes, servant leaders views their position as an opportunity to serve and grow their employees and organization.
In 2017, both Glassdoor and Comparably reported Sameer Dholakia, CEO of SendGrid, as the most highly rated tech CEO. Forbes subsequently brought attention to the CEO by writing about his servant leadership style:
‘Being a servant CEO means inverting the traditional organizational chart and putting the CEO at the bottom, he says. He acknowledges his job is difficult, “but the folks doing the hard rowing of the business are not the CEO … I don’t have to take a phone call from a customer who’s upset about a bug. I don’t have a sales quota.” He thinks a leader’s primary job is to empower others.’
Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO, is also a servant leader. Nadella is known for valuing culture and truly empowering employees by saying: “Make it happen. You have full authority.” He is often looking for ways that others can win.
He writes in his book Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone: “It’s about questioning ourselves each day.”
The questioning of self and of the company helps one to remain humble. It opens the door to possibility and steers clear of ego, which can get in the way of true problem-solving.
The Other “E” Word - The Role of Empathy
Instead of ego, founders should be intentional about cultivating and displaying the other "e" word: empathy. Defined as the ability to understand how others feel, empathy can be a powerful tool in not only getting people motivated, but helping employees to attack challenges and strive for excellence.
If others know that you can see the world from their perspective, it fosters a feeling of trust and support.
Empathy is one of the 18 elements of emotional intelligence (read about EQ: What Is It and Why It Is Important In Business? here). It is also is a key component in people-oriented, servant leadership.
So, as we have written before, the more you can work on your EQ skills, the closer you become to being the best leader you can be. Start now by asking yourself the following:
Do I lead with humility or ego?
Am I leading in service of my team?
Am I an empathetic leader?
What three things could I start doing this week to be in service of my employees?