I’ve always been inspired by humble giants. Leaders who rise to the occasion, whose game-face reflects pure passion and those who live to deliver in the clutch, staring fate in the eyes with the confidence, grit, and unrelenting will to bring home the win. Most of all, those leaders who, despite their abilities and their thirst to win, possess genuine humility through it all. In one of my favorite books, Jim Collins’ Good to Great, such leaders are said to possess a paradoxical blend of humility and professional will. They base their success on leadership style instead of corporate rank. They do anything for the good of their company mission and not for their own personal glory. Such leaders “look out the window to attribute credit and look in the mirror to take blame.”
These are the types of people I want filling the ranks of my company.
But how could I find them? Throughout my years in business, I’ve found that there is one quality that lends itself to this magical combination. People who don’t take themselves too seriously are usually those who are both incredibly humble and unstoppably ambitious—each a fundamental building block to create a great company.
When you find the right leader, amazing things happen. Good leaders are easy to talk to, give good ideas credit, don’t fear failing, don’t shirk from responsibility, and never shy away from getting their hands dirty. They spend less time worrying about how they’re perceived by others and spend more time perceiving; evaluating the business landscape and finding opportunities to contribute—which is essential for learning and growth.
One of the most important aspects of great leadership is the ability to proactively take ownership; understanding that you aren’t just a player in the company, you’re an owner who has the ability to make or break success. Real leaders don’t complain about a problem; they work hard to find creative solutions and crack self-deprecating jokes throughout the entire process. A great leader isn’t above anything or anyone—they spend their energy building others up: their teams, their products, and their company.
Build From the Ground Up.
Great leaders have the courage and the fortitude to dig their heels in and start from scratch. They don’t settle until a project is as perfect as it can be, and while it’s difficult to let go of projects that have already taken shape, a flexible mindset is crucial when working toward solving important issues of the day. In fact, sometimes, starting over is the only way to innovate. When aspiring to change the world we live in, we can’t attach ourselves to the ways of old.
Create a Culture of Trust.
Leaders must create environments in which no one is afraid to laugh at themselves or to have their views challenged. It’s important to establish a work environment where people feel both influential and trusted. For example, I ask every team member to provide regular feedback to their manager regarding how they can become better leaders. And at the company level, we host an “open mic” time during weekly all-hands meetings that opens the floor to ideas, shoutouts, and concerns. The gesture reminds great people that “we’re all in this together.”
Open Spaces = Open Minds.
It’s important for everyone to stay on their toes, which keeps employees from losing their spark and passion. The idea of open workspaces, based on the Pixar model of “serendipitous interactions,” lends itself to creating opportunities where colleagues can “bump” into each other. As companies grow, it’s important to encourage the sparking of spontaneous ideas between employees who don’t typically work together.
Above all, it’s important for leaders to represent the epitome of humility: grounded and without ego. Professional will is tagged in when the inevitable twists are thrown their way—new resource constraints; technical debt coming due; new customer asks pummeling from every direction. Professional will means facing the brutal realities while keeping the faith. Why you ask? Because it’s inevitable for any startup—even a large Fortune 500 company. Obstacles will manifest that you may never have anticipated, and it’s how you react that defines the kind of leader and company you are. People will always take notice of how you react. So react with an egoless humility that acknowledges the situation, and is ready to tackle it with an open mind. Clear eyes. Full hearts. Can’t lose.