Humility is a very overlooked personality trait in business, but it’s probably one of the most important characteristics that can lead you to success. I’m not saying you can’t have an ego or take pride in your work -- you should have both. It’s more about finding the balance between your ego and your willingness to learn.
I’ve worked in lots of different kinds of companies, with many different types of personalities. The most successful people possessed a combination of intelligence, confidence, ego and humility. They were smart enough to know what they knew. They were unafraid to express their point of view, and they were always willing to hear the other side of the argument. Approaching an argument with the willingness to be proven wrong was important.
It’s that last characteristic which I find defines a great leader: the willingness to be wrong. Too often you come across people who hate to be wrong, and as a result they either compensate by surrounding themselves with people less effective then they are, or they beat down those with opposing points of view.
I was told a long time ago that the secret to success is to surround yourself with people who are smarter and more knowledgeable than you are, and to put them on the right projects. When you do that, you tend to learn more, because you’re forced to see challenges through the eyes of others. When you’re myopic and only see things the way you see them, you tend to keep coming to the same conclusions. Repetition eventually fails, and so do you.
To stay at the top of your game, you have to be willing to fail, because failure breeds knowledge. You also have to be willing to be wrong. You have to acknowledge there are other ways to accomplish things -- so you deconstruct how you operate, rebuilding from a different perspective.
This happens in sports all the time. Before Tiger Woods hit that tree, when he focused on golf, he would routinely deconstruct his swing and start over, with great success. In baseball, there are tons of examples of batters reworking how they address the ball. In basketball, there are stories of how Michael Jordan would deconstruct his shooting motion and try to architect a new shot that would continue to lift him to dizzying heights of success. Change is the only constant, and change necessitates reinvention.
If you’re asked whether you’re the smartest person in the room and you answer “yes,” either you need to take down the hubris a bit and learn some humility, or you need to start filling the room with people who know more about things than you do. It’s also quite possible that you may be the smartest person in the room, but if you act like it, then you risk shutting out other people's ideas: ideas could eventually lead you to learn something new. Learning something new eventually does translate to becoming smarter. So by this definition, you will never actually be the smartest person in the room until you die, so why profess to be that person right now?
I know this column sounds like the beginning of a self-help book, but this is something that needs to be said. I’ve worked with teams where the intelligence outweighed the ego, and we had success. I’ve worked with teams that were the reverse of that and we sometimes still had success, but I can tell you which ones I enjoyed more. You can obviously guess which one I prefer.