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Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Case for Management Humility


I have followed politics fairly closely my whole life. One thing, among many, really grates on me when it comes to politicians. Whether it is someone being elected to the U.S. House or Senate or perhaps Governor of a state, invariably in the victory speech many will say, “This is a humbling moment for me.” My thought is always something along the lines that if he or she is so damn humble, how come he is running for high office?

In business, as the years have passed, I increasingly see authentic humility as a very valuable management trait. Most people say that leaders have to be confident and who can argue with that? Yet, too often, with many it appears that confidence drifts into arrogance and it generally ends very badly.

Real humility is not weakness or timidity. To me, it is recognition that others have a lot to offer and that all of us make mistakes. I have always noticed that leaders whom I considered to be humble listen better than others, received negative feed back without getting defensive, and tended to build trust with employees as well as great loyalty. They were not indecisive but were clear that they did not have all the answers.

At times, I worked with some very bright people who were very disrespectful of competition. In an agency shootout, they would say, “We have this one. XYZ agency is full of idiots and we know what they are going to say in their pitch.” Needless to say, not all or even many of those pitches were won. Perhaps the winners did not come off as arrogant to prospects or maybe the chemistry was better or they listened to and responded to the future clients needs. A bit of humility might have helped our cause a great deal.

Years ago, I was at a media conference and the keynote speaker was a well known media mogul. After his speech, his sales chief, who knew me, grabbed me from the audience and said that he wanted to introduce me to Mr. Big. I said certainly but was dreading it. I thought the real life billionaire (back when it meant something) would shake hands and brush me off quickly. Instead, he started asking me questions about the future of media and even about two of my clients which floored me. He looked me straight in the eye the entire time. Generally, in those settings, big players look about to see if they could speak to someone else deemed more important. His sales guy interrupted and said they needed to go. The mogul shushed him and he kept asking questions. I was flattered but almost intimidated by his attention. As we split, he thanked me and said he had learned a few things. It was an interesting moment for me as his press image had been quite the opposite. The alleged megalomaniac came off as humble to me.

Is humility making a comeback? In some quarters, yes. Take finance. Warren Buffett tells people that if you win six out of ten times in investing, you should come out rich at the end of the race. Billions are pouring in to index funds that buy the entire market and do not try to merely pick a few winners. I have noticed that many wildly intelligent and well educated young people buy index funds. They tell me that the low fees will help them over time. They are content to only perform as well as the overall market. A humble approach to investing for sure.

In the media world, there is no shortage of forecasters. Yet, the truly prudent hedge their remarks far more than in the past. They expect to be surprised as technology changes our game with great speed these days.

A few people seem to be naturally humble. Most of us who do learn it, however, learn it by failure. When you realize that there are many things that you do not know, humility often takes hold. Is your corporate leadership humble? It will be a big plus in the turbulent times for advertising and marketing ahead.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

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