Humility: The X-factor

Excerpted from The Punk Rock of Business. Copyright © 2018 by Jeremy Dale. Published by Greenleaf Book Group Press

“People will walk through fire for a leader that’s true and human.”
Patrick Lencioni

Punk by its very nature is aggressive and in your face. In its most raw incarnation, it is likely to be too aggressive for most organizations because it can be intimidating. As John Lydon put it, “Nothing in rebellion is about gentle melodies.” But punk doesn’t need to be aggressive if you apply a degree of care and humility. That is why this characteristic tops my list. Let me share two stories that bring this skill to life.

I first met Drew Keith (a very senior member of Spencer Stuart in Europe) in 2011. During our conversation, I told him several of the stories I’ve included in my book: the Pokémon launch, twelve days to build a store, Bono and Product (RED).

The next time I caught up with Drew in November 2016, I knew I would be leaving Microsoft. I had contacted Drew to see if we could meet up, and he offered to meet me for dinner.

I arrived first, and Drew walked in a few moments later. He greeted me quite surprisingly, saying something along the lines of, “I remember all about putting Pikachu on the Nippon Airways plane, the twelve days it took you to build a store, but what have you done since we last met?”

We chatted about what we had both been doing in the intervening years. Drew is always great company. He then said to me, “I thought about you this summer.”

“Why?” I inquired, puzzled.

“Well, I gave the graduation speech at my daughter’s high school. I was going to talk about the particular attributes all the remarkable people I have met over the course of my career as a headhunter seem to share. But as I started to write down names, I was horrified to realize that in the ten years of doing this, I could only remember ten people. Only ten who were so remarkable, who truly distinguished themselves such that I remembered them.”

It turns out (surprisingly) that I was one of those ten. He went on. “I thought about what made these ten people stand out, what differentiated them. I have seen thousands of intelligent, talented, creative, and ambitious people. What set these few apart? What I realized is that those few people had just one special thing in common: humility. Humility was the differentiator.”

(Instantly, I told him he had a problem as my friends and family would disagree about that characteristic as far as I was concerned, so now he was down to just nine.)

But this is a fascinating insight from one of the most senior recruiters in the world. He must have seen somewhere between five thousand and ten thousand people, and he could only remember ten names. He did keep a list of truly exceptional talent that was a little longer—one hundred seventeen, to be precise—whose names he had written down after they truly impressed him in their interview. He studied his list of just over one hundred people, and he saw four characteristics. He saw intelligence, ambition, luck, and humility. But humility was the x-factor. Drew said to the graduating class, “It is my firm belief that this one ingredient is the most valuable of all. Knowing who you are, remembering where you came from, keeping your ambitions in check, respecting everyone with whom you interact, and knowing that good things will come to you simply by seeking every day in every way to do the right thing—this is how you can distinguish yourselves.”

Those are valuable words from one of the world’s most senior assessors of talent.

A few months earlier, Microsoft had invited Patrick Lencioni (the author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team) to speak at an internal conference, and he had said the exact same thing. He said, “Humility is the x-factor in great leaders.”

Let me give you another example. Shigeru Miyamoto is arguably the greatest video game designer, developer, and producer in history. He has worked for Nintendo since 1977. Miyamoto has helped create some of the greatest and most enduring franchises of all time, including Super Mario Brothers, Donkey Kong, The Legend of Zelda, and the Wii series of games.

Miyamoto is a very genuine and authentic human being. During my time working with Nintendo, he would occasionally agree to an interview with the British gaming press, and I would sit next to him in those meetings. It was like being in the presence of royalty. He commanded such respect from everyone who knew his work. Quite simply, he is a genius, but you could never be near him without also becoming aware of his deep sense of humility and care for humanity.

In 1998, Miyamoto was honored as the first person inducted into the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences’ Hall of Fame. A conversation that occurred immediately after the ceremony and which was later recounted to me sums up Miyamoto in my eyes.

Miyamoto understood English to a limited extent, so when engaging with English speakers he would always be accompanied by a translator, and he would almost always default to his mother tongue. Just after the ceremony, a man and his son approached Miyamoto to congratulate him on the award.

“Mr. Miyamoto, many congratulations on the award. My twelve-year-old son is a big video games player—what tips do you have for him?”

The translator started to translate the question, but Miyamoto stopped him—he had understood. He then reached for a piece of paper and a pencil. He wrote something on the paper, folded it up, and passed it to the boy, rather than the father.

The boy opened the piece of paper and read the message. His eyes lit up, and then he looked up at Miyamoto and beamed a huge smile.

Miyamoto had written this simple message: “Play outside on sunny days.” I absolutely believe that was his number one lesson about video games.

To me, this summed up this amazing gentleman. He never lost sight of the place his inventions should have in this world. He always showed a huge amount of humility and humanity. I think it takes someone special to encourage people not to use their products at every opportunity. It also shows a level of confidence and contentment with who you are and what you do.

I fully recognize that anybody who has been successful to some extent has an ego, myself included. However, I think the ability to keep a sense of humility is probably the single biggest lesson. The single biggest! So listen up: Humility is rare and magical and precious and an accelerator of success.

I have seen very few leaders who have mastered the art of being driven in business while doing it with humanity and humility. This is the holy grail for business leaders, for humility is the antidote to the abrasiveness of a punk attitude. It’s not about toning down the punk; it’s just that humility reassures people that the punk comes from a good place with good intentions.

Imagine two bosses who are equally demanding: Both require very high standards of performance from their team, and they continually push for better. One is arrogant—he or she gets branded a bully and resented by the team. The other has humility, and he or she is thanked by the team for pushing them to be better than they were. I have seen this to be true over and over again. Humility is the magic ingredient that shows your team and your colleagues that your motivations come from a good place.