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Jose R. Costa


Humility Is the Key to Being an Agile Leader

Being right vs. finding the right solution

Published: Tuesday, July 2, 2019 - 12:02

Few people would deny the crucial role agility plays in helping a person succeed in today’s ever-changing business environment. The best leaders read the shifting marketplace and course-correct to help their businesses stay ahead of the curve. Yet while “agility” may be a trendy concept, the key to actually being an agile leader is far less sexy: It’s humility.

A lack of humility makes it difficult for you to correct your course when you are headed down the wrong path. Humble leaders, who prioritize learning and seeking new answers, are more likely to change when they make a mistake. Those who can’t put the right answer ahead of their need to be right are more likely to become stuck in the face of changing circumstances.

Here’s an example.

Many years ago, I worked at a large restaurant chain under a chief marketing officer (CMO) who thought she had all the answers. When someone challenged her, she would scream at him and wouldn’t back down. This created a chaotic atmosphere where people were afraid to bring new ideas, offer opinions, or even talk to her if they didn’t have to.

My team was working on a promotional campaign in Latin America, and this CMO wanted us to focus our efforts exclusively on kids and families. The problem was that our research pointed in a different direction. It showed that soccer, which was a big draw throughout the region, could provide us with some huge marketing opportunities. So our franchisees and my direct boss (the president of the region) agreed to shift our focus.

The problem was that none of us thought the CMO would agree to our change. So we put off telling her. When I secured the exclusive rights to partner with the region’s most popular soccer league, we didn’t tell her. When we got PepsiCo to put money toward the campaign, we still didn’t say anything. We got nearly 85 percent of our Latin American stores to participate in a promotion where we offered drinking glasses with various soccer team logos to draw fans into our restaurants. The glasses sold out in two weeks, and the campaign ended up being the most successful ever executed in our Latin American market.

Everyone within the organization was thrilled—except the CMO. She didn’t find out until the first commercial aired, but by then it was too late. We all knew it was a risk to execute the campaign without telling her, but we knew that she would kill it if we did. If the campaign failed, or was even a marginal success, I probably would have been fired. But it wasn’t just a success; it was a wild success. I knew it would be. I had done my homework, kept an open mind, and followed the research where it led me.

Since then, I’ve found myself in similar positions of authority, and I’ve made sure to remember the lessons I learned from working under my former CMO. I’ve made a point to ensure people see me as someone with whom they can exchange views, and to whom they can bring controversial and potentially innovative ideas. This allows me to be an agile leader and to lead an agile company.

So how can you become a more humble—and agile—leader? Here are some simple ways you can incorporate humility into your daily work:

First, deemphasize hierarchy. I never state my title when I introduce myself, especially to someone junior. This only reinforces a feeling of superiority. So does sitting in a corner office while your team crowds together in cubicles. When I became the CEO of For Eyes by GrandVision, I moved my desk, and those of all the managers, out to the floor with our teams.

Second, put yourself in someone else’s position. When I was president of MAACO, I participated in the CBS show “Undercover Boss.” If you haven’t seen it, executives from various companies dress up to go “undercover” in their organizations to learn what it’s really like to work on the frontline. For me, that meant working in several different MAACO body shops around the country as a sander, painter, and detailer. Boy, was I humbled when I got my performance reviews: “not fast enough,” “too many mistakes,” and, “I should fire this guy.” It gave me a real appreciation for the work these guys do to please our customers and make our company a success. While you may not get a chance to be on “Undercover Boss,” you can still get out of your office and spend time in your warehouse, tour your stores, go on a sales call, or do whatever applies to your particular business.

Third, give credit where credit is due. I once had a boss who would take all the work that her team members had done and present it to her own boss under her name, which had an extremely negative impact on morale. The humble thing would have been for her share the credit. I’m not suggesting that you give credit just to make people feel good, but acknowledging someone for her real contributions is a cheap, easy, and effective motivational tactic. This will ensure that people feel good about their work and about you as a leader, who notices and appreciates it.

Finally, take an interest in people. You never know what you can learn from someone, so it’s important to take time to get to know your team. I build it right into my schedule on a regular basis, taking people I work with—usually peer level or below—out for coffee or lunch as often as I can. I like to get people out of the office because I believe the change in setting helps them let their guard down and relax so they can open up. That has allowed for an enormous amount of good feedback and insight to come my way.

First published June 10, 2019, on the thoughtLEADERS blog.


About The Author

Jose R. Costa’s picture

Jose R. Costa

Jose R. Costa, is the author of Leading With Edge: Activate Your Competitive Advantage Through Personal Insight, and formerly served as CEO of For Eyes, part of GrandVision, a global leader in optical retail with more than 7,000 stores worldwide.


Humility is the key

I cannot stress enough the ability to be humble. The need to be right always, even in the light of changing information, is a true career limiter.


Thank you for the article. I really appreciate the inpact of humility. I have seen very few mangers walk in the shoes of their employees.