The Exhausting Burden of Always Being Right

“As the founder and owner of this business, it was my courage and persistence that got the business started. I was the one that made the right decisions and made things work. When something needed to be done, I did it. There were some tough decisions to make, but making them and being right got the business to where it is today. Now I look around and do not see any one who can do what I can do. No one else has the passion and dedication to make this business work. I have made the right decisions, and done that over and over through the years. Who could possibly replace me.”

When I speak with an owner who is a legend in his own mind and hear something like the above quoted passage, I begin to think of ways to connect that owner with reality. With years of experience, I have yet to find a business where the legend was true. I do not have to do any investigation or fact checking. No successful business is the product of the effort of only one person. No one makes the correct decision all the time. With any given business, there are usually several people in the business who could run it as well as the people running it now – they might do things differently, but they could run the business. And what I hear from these owners is how tired they are because they have to do it all.

What I have observed over the years is that the most effective leaders (read leaders of profitable businesses that increase in value) have a common virtue – humility. I am not alone. Jim Collins, after five years of research, in a seminal article in the Harvard Business Review (January 2001) entitled Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve , concluded that having a leader who was an individual with humility and resolve was critical to business success. This research was the basis for Collins’ classic business book Good to Great, published in 2001. According to this research, leaders who possess “extreme personal humility with intense professional will” are “catalysts for the statistically rare event of transforming a good company into a great one. ” These leaders are “a study in duality: modest and willful, shy and fearless.”

The process of making good decisions requires extensive information, review of comparable decisions, consultation with those experienced, and consultation with those required to execute. The owner practicing humility is superbly positioned to engage in effective decision making and make more good decisions than bad decisions. The humble owner is also superbly positioned to analyze and question a decision as it is being executed upon and is not prevented by pride from acknowledging the need for revision. From this comes a firm and overriding conviction, not only on the part of the owner but on the part of the team (who has been involved in the decision-making), that the path is right and success will be forthcoming. The discipline of the owner’s humility forges the tensile strength of the conviction of the team.

What is done in the exercise of the discipline of humility? Other contributions are appreciated and recognized. Others are not judged inappropriately, and attribution of blame is avoided. Praise is redirected to those who have contributed. Knowledge is not flaunted, but displayed at appropriate times. There is a recognition of the need to teach and train to the greatest extent possible. There is a perception and acknowledgment of errors. There is a culture of listening that encourages communication. The legend of excellence will not be self-articulated.

Far from being weak, the humble owner will be strong. The humble owner practices a discipline enabling good decisions and creating the will and resolve for the business team to succeed. Because the owner (in the owner’s own mind and in reality), is not doing it all, the owner will not be so tired.