Hubris: The Other Side of Level 5

July 30, 2009

I wrote an article recently that included a link to an interview with Wendy Koop, CEO of Teach for America.  When Wendy was asked what leadership or management books she found most helpful, she said she was “obsessed” with Jim Collins and his books Good to Great and Built to Last.  A LOT of us have read these books and found them very appealing.

As you should know by now, the research that Collins based his very popular books on does not support his very strong conclusions.  Bob Sutton has done an excellent job of outlining the problems with these books, so I won’t rehash that, but you can find his articles here and here

I strongly recommend that you don’t read another book on leadership or management until you have read The Halo Effect.  The bottom line from this book is that there is no simple formula for either employee or organizational performance, which I have to keep in mind as I talk and write about leadership.

Even though his research does not really support it, the Collins concept that resonates the most with me philosophically is Level 5 Leadership.  According to Collins, Level 5 leaders are characterized by personal humility and professional will and this is a necessary trait in order to build enduring greatness in an organization. 

Hubris is the opposite of humility, and there is some empirical support for the harmful effects of hubris.  Management researchers have used the term hubris to describe executives with extreme over confidence and a hyper Core Self-Evaluation (CSE).  When executives have high hubris, it can have a negative impact on the strategic decision making process, the actual strategic choices that are made, and ultimately organizational performance (Hiller, N.J. & Hambrick, D.C. 2005. Conceptualizing executive hubris: The role of (hyper-) core self-evaluations in strategic decision making. Strategic Management Journal. 26: 297-319.) 

Filled with confidence, these executives believe they posses valuable personal insights or understanding of their strategic situations and available alternatives, such that they will not feel the need to exhaustively gather, analyze, and discuss data. (p,309)

High-CSE executives believe that they personally possess valuable insights and skills. Moreover, they hold the core conviction that their efforts – their personal efforts – lead to favorable outcomes.  It is unlikely that such executives would embrace the idea that others in the organization can make a given decision as well as they can; nor would they want to defy their conviction that effort equals reward.  High CSE executives will tend not to delegate and will prefer to act unilaterally.  (pp. 310-311). 

These propositions are supported by research, but they have yet to be directly tested.  I am not aware of much research on humility and decision making, but given the support for the harmful effects of hubris, a healthy degree of humility in leadership is very appealing.

Here is the difficult bottom line for me – I can’t give you any advice on how to be humble.  For me personally, I can tell you that I have been humbled throughout my career and for whatever reason have responded in ways that have eroded some of my own personal hubris. 

Not that I enjoy being humbled, but I am thankful for those times.

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  1. Capacity « Bret L. Simmons | August 17, 2009
  1. Wally Bock says:

    Great post, Bret. I have a slightly different problem with Collins’ Level 5. He uses the term humility, but what he describes is someone who gives priority to organizational performance compared with his own perks, reputation, etc. I’m reminded of Ben Franklin in his Autobiography. In the section on “The Bold and Arduous Project of Arriving at Moral Perfection,” Franklin says that he added “humility” to his list of virtues to work on after another citizen chastised him for being proud.

    In his discussion of how he did, Franklin says the following about humility. “I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it.”

    I suspect that may be the case with many effective executives have done the same. Part of their effectiveness, and what I think Collins observed, is that they concentrate on group performance and not their own importance.

  2. Wally, I appreciate you pointing this out. One of my favorite things he says about Level 5 is that when the organization has an achievement they look out the window to credit others with success, but when things go wrong they look in the mirror at themselves to accept responsibility. The executive with hubris would take all the credit for the success and there would always be someone else to blame for problems.

    Once again, very valuable insight, Wally. Thanks! Bret

  3. I too have been humbled and it took age to get me there and my own awareness that others are just as unique and can contribute to the solutions. I have worked for a mad man who thought only he could think critically. It was a situation where I went from hero to zero within a short amount of time due to my challenges…and then I was fired. That was humbling and freeing; it created an awareness of how I, too, would forge ahead without considering others. Hard lesson, but it’s helped me set a far better course in my life. Another great post, Bret.

  4. Alain: Sometimes we see most clearly looking in the rear view mirror. I very much appreciate your insight. Thanks for continuing to share your thoughts. Bret