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Mike Micklewright

Quality Insider

Are You Humble Enough to Be a Lean CEO?

CEO does not stand for chief ego officer

Published: Thursday, November 15, 2012 - 11:52

If you’ve answered the question above with, “Absolutely yes, I am a very humble leader,” you probably are not.

But don’t get me wrong: Humility should not be a substitute for confidence. In fact, perhaps the two greatest assets a lean leader, change agent, innovation pioneer, or a continuous improvement champion can have are to be both confident and humble, or quietly confident. So, while the assertion of “Absolutely yes, I am a very humble leader” displays an immense amount of confidence, a quietly humble person would have more likely answered, “I believe I am, but it is best that you ask those who work for me, since they are on the receiving end of my direction.” This same person would have been confident in his own humility but open and interested in the responses from those who work for him, be willing to accept the criticism, and even possibly change. He also would have known that the most accurate and truthful answers would not come from him but from those who work with him.

But why is humility important to lead a successful lean effort? A true lean (or continuous improvement) transformation requires change to the very foundation, structure, culture, business practices, organization, metrics, and perhaps even the principles upon which the organization is based. If the organization is to truly transform—and an organization is oftentimes a reflection of the leaders who run it—then the leaders need to be open to transforming the way they manage and lead. To be open to change, then, a CEO must be humble, realize that she doesn’t know it all, and hire the right people, and allow them to drive the bus. A CEO needs to be open-minded to different ways of operating the business, regardless of past success, and open to criticism. A CEO needs to learn from others because others know so much, and she can be guided by them as subject matter experts.

“Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble... when you’re perfect in every way.”
—Mac Davis

A CEO needs to realize that he is not “perfect in every way,” nor should he be. “CEO” does not stand for chief ego officer. A true leader sets the example for others to follow. If a CEO is pushing change through a lean transformation and expects others to change, that same CEO must show that he is willing to change as well. Continuous improvement is not just about improving organizations; it is about improving people, and it all starts with you improving yourself. As Art Byrne, former CEO of Wiremold, wrote in The Lean Turnaround (McGraw-Hill, 2012), “If the CEO won’t change his ways and become totally engaged (become the company’s lean zealot), then there is little, if any, chance of turning any company around using the lean principles.”

In Good to Great (HarperBusiness, 2011), Jim Collins discusses leadership qualities that distinguish “Level 5 CEOs” (the highest level for leadership effectiveness) of the Good to Great companies to CEOs of companies who never made it to “great” status. One of the attributes of Level 5 CEOs is, as you’ve probably guessed, humility. Of the 11 companies that met the tough criteria of being a good company for years and then, almost overnight, transformed itself to a “great” company for a sustained period of time, all had Level 5 leaders who were humble and hardly known in the business world, much less the consumer world. Most of us would never have even heard of them. They were the anti-Lee Iacocca’s of the business world, happy at running a successful business without having to proclaim that fact to the rest of the world.

Can humility be taught?

I believe everything can be taught, if the learner is open to learning and has the desire to do so. A humbling experience often will create that willingness to learn. Running a company into the ground, losing a major customer or contract, loss of close friends, divorce, or getting fired can all be humbling experiences that may provide the desire to learn about humility and reassess who you are as an individual.

But what if you do not have that humbling experience? Let’s face it: If you are a CEO and have experienced a great deal of success throughout your lifetime, you do begin to feel that you are perfect in every way, and therefore it’s hard to be humble—very hard. The ego expands to such a huge size that it becomes the sole explanation as to why the company has been so successful. Then, since the company is already “perfect,” the ego actually impairs the vision of being even more successful, or the possibility of changing the organization with changing times and customer demands.

One begins to think, “OK, Toyota has been extremely successful over the years, so let’s copy the tools they use. Toyota was successful because of these tools, and they can work inside our organization, too. In this way, we don’t have to change management styles, leadership, the organization, our principles, or our culture. These are the things I created, and they are good. I don’t have to change, either, because I have always been successful. We just have to change the tools we use, just like going out and buying a new ratchet set. We definitely don’t need an organizational change.

Or, in extreme cases, one might think, “So what if Toyota has had great success? So have we. They are in a different industry—that stuff doesn’t work in our industry. Toyota can learn a thing or two from us, if people only knew about us. We’re good for now, and there’s no need to change.”

Past success is the greatest deterrent to change.

Overcoming ego

The biggest killer of improvement of any sort is the ego, and we are all subject to its uninterrupted growth unless we have mechanisms to control it. But how? A large ego stems from a lack of self-confidence or self-esteem, which almost seems counterintuitive. How do we overcome such a strong force as the lack of our own self-esteem?

Perhaps you can start here: Convince yourself that humility is a good thing. Read about Level 5 leadership in Good to Great. Think of the people you admire, whether they are friends, relatives, business associates, acquaintances, world leaders, religious figures, or historical figures. Think of the athletes you’ve listened to being interviewed. Do you respect the egocentrics or those who are humble and appreciative of their teammates? Think of how great you felt as a youngster when someone shared a success story and gave you a lot of the credit. Also, think about how low you felt when someone stole the credit from you and lauded themselves for your efforts. Humility is a good thing!

This is the hard part: Assess your current level of humility. This is your current state. Be mindful of how often you interrupt people. Be mindful of how often you tell someone what to do rather than ask them for their ideas. Be mindful of the how often you use the word “I” instead of “we.” Be mindful of how often you think that the people who work for you are a bunch of idiots. Be mindful how often you feel that you have to do someone else’s work because you have no faith or trust in him.

Then, most important, discuss with several people, perhaps a mentor, a true friend that does not hold back the truth, a parent, a spouse, an old respected boss, how they would rate your humility level. But first, before they rate you, tell them how important you feel humility is and why you think it is important to be humble. Then ask them for their rating on a 1 to 10 scale. Perhaps you can ask them to envision the pain scale in a hospital room. A 10 is no humility and lots of pain for everyone else. What is your humility rating?

Becoming a true leader

Now, in the spirit of continuous improvement, it is time to change. This transformation will not only be good for the people in the organization, but it will also be good for your own health.
• Volunteer—outside of work! A University of Ottawa study showed that egocentrism is a major contributor to depression. So what’s the cure? Thinking about others. Donating your time to charity lowers depression and anxiety levels, finds a University of Texas study. And you only have to volunteer once a month to give your life a greater sense of purpose, according to research from Duke University and the National University of Singapore.
• At work, practice what W. Edwards Deming tried to teach us. He said that a leader understands his three sources of power and uses them appropriately. The three sources are: authority of office, knowledge, and personality and persuasive power—or tact.

Deming explained that a true leader develops his own “knowledge” and the “knowledge” of those who report to him, and fully develops and utilizes his own “persuasive power” to convince others of the right path. A leader does not rely on “authority of office.” A CEO who relies on authority of office tells her people to do what she says because she is the boss. In lean lingo, we would call this a “push” system, in that the only reason why people are moving ahead on the boss’s orders is because she is the boss. There is no wisdom gained or knowledge learned as to why the path they are taking is the right path, or even if it is the right path.

A true leader would know of the wisdom in using a “pull” system to convince people through knowledge and tact of the right path so that they all desire to go down that path willingly and passionately because they believe in it and understand why it’s right. A true leader only uses his authority of office to obtain the resources for those who work for him to get the job done in accordance with the mission, vision, and principles of the company.

• At work, if you need to stroke your ego, develop your abilities for hiring people who are better or more knowledgeable than you, and tell them how good you are at hiring only the best people in the industry, including them. Teach them about the company’s direction and the principles of lean, and then get out of the way and let them do what you hired them to do. Jim Collins referred to this as “getting the right people on the bus.” Let them drive the bus. Trust them to do their job as you support them with the resources they need to get the job done, while still being actively involved through the gemba.
• Learn to trust your instincts about whom you hired, and learn to trust the people you hired.
• Learn to let go of control. Most people say this is the hardest part for any CEO to learn and nearly impossible, if she is the original founder of the company. But it is absolutely necessary if the company is going to continue to grow.
• Respect the people whom you’ve hired, and build in systems that respect all employees. Also, destroy any business practices that currently do not support the respect of people. If you haven’t noticed by now, every single lean “tool” has a an element of respecting people and encouraging their involvement, whether it is training within industry (TWI), 5S, A3 problem solving, single-minute exchange of dies (SMED), value-stream mapping, visual management, gemba walks, or mistake-proofing.

Learn how to lead. You may know how to manage, and you may even know how to micromanage, but you may not know how to lead. Respecting people is also about realizing that every person has something to contribute to the good of the company. It is about giving everyone the chance to voice his opinions and develop solutions. As a humble leader, you must learn to ask questions, not provide answers. You must learn how to be a leader, coach, and mentor. You must drop your talents for micromanaging because micromanaging is a killer to internal passion, and it is the opposite of leadership. The last person to know she is a micromanager is the person herself. Are you also blind to your micromanaging qualities? To find out, ask those same people you asked to rate you on your humility quotient.

You must also realize that you do not know it all and that you cannot manage a business and lead people from a board room, conference room, or office. You must go to the gemba and be open-minded about what more you can learn from the people in your company. You must see their pain, their frustrations, and their desires for the future.

Find a way to continuously evaluate your effectiveness as a leader and your humility quotient. Always strive to improve yourself. Never give up, and never lose your focus on becoming a more humble leader and person.

This article first appeared Nov. 1, 2012, in the Lean CEO blog.


About The Author

Mike Micklewright’s picture

Mike Micklewright

Mike Micklewright has been teaching and facilitating quality and lean principles worldwide for more than 25 years. He specializes in creating lean and continuous improvement cultures, and has implemented continuous improvement systems and facilitated kaizen/Six Sigma events in hundreds of organizations in the aerospace, automotive, entertainment, manufacturing, food, healthcare, and warehousing industries. Micklewright is the U.S. director and senior consultant for Kaizen Institute. He has an engineering degree from the University of Illinois, and he is ASQ-certified as a Six Sigma Black Belt, quality auditor, quality engineer, manager of quality/operational excellence, and supply chain analyst.

Micklewright hosts a video training series by Kaizen Institute on integrating lean and quality management systems in order to reduce waste.



Well said; Mike: it's high time that somebody pulls the beard of the demi-gods dwelling on the top management Olympus. Where I live, in northern Italy, close to Switzerland, there is a beautiful lake, Lago Maggiore, and there are some beautiful islands, too. On one of these, a cardinal, belonging to the Borromeo family, very powerful in the Renaissance, had a castle built, in which one finds the word "Humilitas" carved, painted, represented everywhere. And if a Cardinal of such status, needed to be reminded of this rule ... Thank you. Just an after-thought: would you say LEO means Lean Executive Officer, or just "Leo"? :-) An after-after-thought: History also reminds us of Cincinnatus - quite an example.