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Why Leaders Need To Show Humility

JetBlue Chairman Joel Peterson on why humility is critical to leadership success in today's work environment.

The following is a guest piece by Joel Peterson, Chairman of JetBlue, with David A. Kaplan.

Self-promoting divas and power-hoarding executives destroy organizational trust. High-trust leaders, on the other hand, see their role as a stewardship, guiding people, assets, and decision-making—protecting the values and vision that make an organization what it is. And that requires humility.

French President Charles de Gaulle—not exactly a shrinking violet himself—used to remind people that “cemeteries are full of indispensable men.” Diva-style leaders who ignore that mordant reminder of humility are unlikely to build anything that lasts longer than they do. Only those interested in leadership as more than mere ego gratification have a chance to build something that outlasts them.

When a CEO becomes a household name, that CEO may well need to get his own house in order. In “Good to Great”, Jim Collins lamented the trend of boards that become “enamored with charismatic CEOs,” a tendency that, he concluded, was “most damaging” for “the long-term health of companies.” Indeed, his research showed that “good-to-great” CEOs generally received very little attention, whether in the mainstream press or in his interviews for the book.

It’s natural for strong leaders to feel they make a vital difference to everything—and everyone—in an organization. They often believe that the firm’s legacy and their own are one and the same. But that kind of arrogance (après moi, le déluge) can be deadly to trust.

Leaders with a me-first attitude are often too distracted playing the smartest guy in the room to realize the floodwaters have begun to rise and their entire organizations are at risk. That’s exactly what happened at Enron. When CEO Jeff Skilling proclaimed, “I am Enron,” the energy giant was at its peak. Then came the tempest. By the time the floodwaters had receded, Skilling was in prison and his name synonymous with one of the largest bankruptcies in U.S. history.

The hubris displayed by Skilling, along with founder Kenneth Lay and CFO Andrew Fastow, didn’t just destroy Enron. Their fatal lack of humility damaged the public’s trust in business leaders in general. With a raft of scandals at WorldCom, Tyco, Global Crossing, and Adelphia Communications, as well as at Enron, it wasn’t just these companies or their low-trust leaders who took the trust hit—we all did.

Not unlike the destruction of trust brought about by megalomaniacal divas is the damage that Wall Street banks can cause to companies, or to the economy in general, as in the 2008 meltdown. These disasters have affected popular attitudes toward our entire system of free market capitalism. The trust of many in a system that has been the most spectacular generator of innovation in history was damaged by the unbridled greed of a few.

Only when leaders are grounded in humility through enlightened self-interest can they build an enduring organization. The statement “L’etat, c’est moi,” attributed to French King Louis the XIV, isn’t a sustainable governing principle. (In fact, it helped sow the seeds of the French Revolution.) Instead, humility makes it possible for a leader to build for a future he won’t see, ensuring that the best parts of the business not only last but also can be built on by the next generation.

Just as high-trust organizations are careful not to hire Louis XIV imitators, they also avoid treating employees like second-class citizens. As roles and reporting relationships differ, high-trust organizations figure out ways to treat with dignity those who aren’t executives, lack Ivy League degrees, or go about their tasks quietly. Does the CEO view a receptionist as “help”—an anonymous face he walks by each morning—or as a team member with the potential to rise through the ranks buoyed by the memory of being treated well by the chief?

High-trust leaders assume all employees are on their way to great things. They may remember that Rodney McMullen, CEO at Kroger, started as a stock clerk at the local Kroger grocery store before he became its CEO thirty-six years later.

Similarly, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon began as an hourly summer associate in a distribution center, unloading trucks. At Boeing, Alan Mulally was hired right out of college as an engineer and went on to become its CEO before becoming the chief executive at Ford. And Carly Fiorina reminds us that someone who’s worked as a receptionist and secretary can become a CEO and presidential candidate.

It’s impossible to build a high-trust organization around a caste system. While there are always different positions on a business team with different levels of responsibility, each is vital to winning. No one should feel unimportant to the mission. To build a high-trust group, a leader needs to show that everyone has value.

The importance of showing appreciation for every member of the team, as well as for the contributions of those who laid a company’s groundwork, was exemplified by William A. Hewitt at John Deere.

After a century of dominance by International Harvester (IH) in the farm-machinery industry, competitor John Deere got a new president in Hewitt, a dropout from Harvard Business School who married the great-great-granddaughter of the original John Deere. Hewitt set about turning the business into a multinational corporation, but without allowing it to lose its ethos.

Over his twenty-seven-year tenure, he subordinated his own personality to the rich heritage of the company. Hewitt loved to quote “past stories of conservative wisdom and leadership to fellow workers as a means of . . . reinforcing the values-based culture,” according to David Magee’s history of the company. Hewitt inspired trust in his employees, as he helped Deere leapfrog past IH.

When Hewitt retired, a colleague put it well: “He made us realize how good we were.” It’s hard to imagine higher praise for a leader—one who’s capable of building trust among people and, just as important, empowering them to trust themselves.

It may sound like a paradox, but to be effective, high-trust leaders must see themselves as both vital and dispensable. Many leaders are indeed great men and women; the trick is not to announce it—and even more, not to believe it.

When Caesar rode in triumph into Rome to the roar of adoring crowds, he had a guard whisper repeatedly into his ear, “You are only a man.” A leader’s ego suspension is essential to learning from inevitable mistakes. Unless leaders have the modesty to learn, to grow, and to weather the journey along with everybody else, few will want to trust them.

Leaders might consider enthroning humility as a foundational element in trust-building in these five ways:

1. Remember the mantra: “It’s about the mission, not about me.”
2. Gather the history of the organization.
3. Celebrate achievements openly—give recognition.
4. When thanking people, be specific.
5. Look for fun, meaningful ways people can interact outside work.

Joel Peterson is the Chairman of JetBlue and a consulting professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Formerly the Managing Partner of Trammel Crow, one of the nation’s leading real estate developers, he is chairman of the investment firm he founded in 1995.

David A. Kaplan worked for 25 years at Newsweek and Fortune. A New York Times bestselling author, he is now a media consultant and teaches journalism and law at NYU.

Excerpted from “The 10 Laws of Trust: Building the Bonds That Make a Business Great” © 2016 by Joel Peterson, with David A. Kaplan. Reproduced by permission of AMACOM. All rights reserved.

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