Roll Up Your Sleeves: Why Humility Matters to CEOs

As a kid who grew up on the move -- a new school every two years or so -- I learned pretty quickly that whatever helped me fit in or stand out at one school might not mean a thing at the next. In investment parlance, past performance was no guarantee of future success. There were quite a few lessons in humility along the way, and while sometimes painful as a child, those lessons have stayed with me as an adult -- and as a CEO -- in some very constructive and beneficial ways.

All these years later, I've noticed that all too often in business, confidence is mistaken for success. But in my experience, success for most is more closely linked to humility -- demonstrated through hard work, being honest about who you are, and owning your mistakes. In competitive industries, humility often isn't a popular trait. But finding humility and seeing it as a leadership strength rather than a weakness can benefit a company's culture and create a more productive and engaged workplace. Consider these three tactics I've learned along the way.

Roll Up Your Sleeves (And Learn to Press Them Yourself)

It seems obvious, but I've learned that the most effective way to achieve humility is to earn it. Hard work was engrained into my DNA as a preacher's kid growing up in mostly small towns in the Midwest. Pitching in was a matter of necessity -- there was no money to pay others to do the work. And when my parents divorced, my mom struggled. I can remember, unfortunately, a couple of years where it was a choice of, "Would you like to eat today, or would you like to have new clothes for the start of school?"

I had jobs all through high school and college -- a lot of jobs. I managed an apartment complex, refurbished antiques, and worked at a flower shop, all before I turned 20. By 22, I was married with a child, a job, and grad school classes at night. One of the biggest challenges at that time in my life was dressing appropriately for work. I owned just five white shirts that were acceptable. We couldn't afford a sixth. And since dry-cleaning, at 99 cents a shirt, was out of the question, I learned to wash and iron -- every night, week after week.

Obviously, a lot of things have changed over the years -- for one, I own more than five shirts -- but I've kept my willingness to roll up my sleeves and dive into projects -- and I believe that sends an important message to our teams as an integral part of our culture.

Be Yourself -- and Encourage Employees to Do the Same

It takes a certain amount of humility for leaders to understand who they are -- and who they aren't. I once worked for a CEO who had a lot of charisma: he was a tall, good-looking guy who had this incredible presence. He would walk in, and the room would fall silent. He was everything I thought I needed to be.

But I learned over time, that's not who I am. I'm the person you pull to the side for a chat or the familiar uncle or brother you can trust to give fair counsel. The upside is that people feel at ease talking candidly to me -- and they do. And, in the workplace, getting unfiltered reports is a huge advantage. It helps me be a better leader.

Success is easy to claim, but it takes humility to share it and acknowledge that someone else is behind that success. Good leaders are never threatened by achievements of others in their ranks, and sharing success is one simple way to send a powerful message that a leader values individual contributions.

And while sharing the success of others keeps us honest, owning failure is harder and perhaps the most humbling experience of all. Everyone struggles at some point in their career, and we need to be confident enough to say, "This happened on my watch. I own it." Or, to utter the very powerful words: "I'm sorry." I hate to admit it but, like most people, I have been guilty of speaking before thinking, of letting a tense moment or a tough situation get the better of me. It actually happened just a couple of weeks ago. As much as we may dislike it, that's an unfortunate part of being human. While it's far better to manage that negative energy in the first place, when it does get the best of us, there is no substitute for a prompt and sincere apology. No leader should be above recognizing a mistake; holding myself accountable sets a standard for others that reinforces the best in our culture.

You can channel and demonstrate humility from many sources. For me it's a daily exercise in asking: Is there a business win that needs to be recognized or a missed opportunity my employees or clients need to see me own? Have I listened to my team as closely as I should? Did I share my successes and own my part in our team's failures?

Because humility prevents excessive self-focus, it also allows me to develop deeper appreciation for the work of others and provides me with a unique perspective on how to connect with employees at all levels in the company. These connections are the source of many of my most fulfilling professional relationships and create better alignment on our work goals.

A Constant Journey

In a world that is engineered to make the boss feel perpetually "right" by virtue of his or her position alone, humility is a constant journey. Whenever I find myself going off track, I always picture myself as a young man back at the ironing board, pressing those five white shirts, doing my best to make a good impression and prove what I could do.