Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow: the shadow is what we think of it: the tree is the real thing.

A. Lincoln


Humility can be a very elusive character trait. As illustrated by a favorite quote that I read a long time ago “Humility is a funny thing once you think you have it you’ve lost it”. It is however very noticeable when you observe it in another individual because it standouts as being both genuine and sincere. In a world that honors the great accomplishments of individuals, humility is not a quality that large numbers of people demonstrate in their daily interactions. Those who feign false modesty and altruistic motives are often seeking additional adulation. In looking at various organizations I have always admired the International Rotary’s noble motto. On a global basis the Rotarians are committed to the motto of service before self. It is evident that the world would be substantially different and a much better place if many more people embraced this mindset.

Ken Blanchard the leadership guru presented a very poignant quote on humility in his book The Heart Of Change which resonated with me and continues to be a very helpful reminder. He stated “Humility is not about thinking less of yourself, it is about thinking about yourself less “. It seems so many people either consciously or unconsciously prefer behaving in a fashion that is focused on being self serving versus serving others. I know from personal experience it takes a serious amount of reflection and being brutally honest with yourself in order to grow from being selfish to becoming self less. I have found it to be a life long personal journey of continuous improvement and personal growth in order to stay on the right course.

In this article I hope to provide you with some helpful lessons learned in trying to become a better leader throughout my career and in particular through my lean journey in the past twelve years. During the first twenty years of my career I was exposed to many leaders who achieved success by employing a command and control style. The organizations that I worked for during those years highly valued these types of leaders and rewarded these individuals with promotions and public recognition. They reinforced these behaviors throughout their organizations. I was on the receiving end of these leaders and it didn’t feel very good. It seemed that these leaders were doing things to people instead of with and for people. The other consistent message that they delivered was that the end justified the means. They felt that they had the knowledge and experience to solely make all the key decisions in term of their organizations. They operated from a position of power. The blame game was the immediate reaction to any problems or issues. I made a commitment to myself that given the opportunity I was going to employ a people centric style that I was formally learning about along with other progressive styles of leadership.

In assuming the role of director of operations of Xomed in 1993 I relied heavily on my prior experience, the lessons learned from Stephen Covey’s book The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People and Warren Bennis’ book Becoming a Leader as the foundation for my leadership approach. The operation was in very poor shape in terms of employee morale, product quality, cost and delivery. The operation in Jacksonville had started on a TQM program a year prior to my arrival and it had been unsuccessful and stalled almost completely. We worked hard during the first two years in improving employee engagement and processes. We were hugely successfully in dramatically improving quality, cost and delivery. I was being credited for leading an incredible turnaround and was promoted to Vice President of Operations. I was beginning to believe all the exaggerated things that were being said about me. At this point in my career hubris not humility was the character trait that I best exemplified.

Over the next three years we were able to deliver stellar results through our continuous improvement activities. The CEO of Xomed acknowledged our great performance but asked me to prepare a strategy to create a world class operation to support the explosive projected growth in sales in the upcoming years. I thought it was a layup because I was given an entire year to develop a strategy. Despite a great deal of benchmarking and study I struggled with this assignment and was running out of time. A brochure for the Shingo Prize for Manufacturing Excellence crossed my desk and it seemed like the approach we needed. We attended the Shingo Conference in Columbus in May 1999. It was the most humbling experience of my business career. I listened to presentations from companies that were truly achieving world class performance. They were delivering annual results that we couldn’t deliver over five years. I realized that the only expertise that I possessed regarding lean was the ability to spell the word.

Fast forwarding, we began our lean journey with a healthy amount of humility and a burning passion. We realized early on the compelling Medtronic mission of alleviating pain, restoring health and extending life was the real purpose for committing to a lean journey. This approach certainly resonated with people throughout the operation. The Jacksonville facility in 2002 was awarded the Industry Week’s Ten Best Plants in North America and the Shingo Prize of Manufacturing Excellence in 2003. The operation was being touted as the center of excellence at Medtronic. We were constantly being asked to provide tours for Medtronic personnel and external companies. I was spending too much time giving presentations around the country and enjoying all the personal attention and heady experience. I was very fortunate because a very close friend came to me and had a painfully frank conversation which helped me in seeing the things I was ignoring in terms of my behavior. As I look back on this encounter it was a defining moment in my life. This watershed experience helped me to recognize my real purpose in life. My purpose was the compass that I needed to use to govern my behavior which would require unremitting humility if I was truly committed to serving people.

Sharpening the saw with Covey’s 7 Habits helped me to focus on humility as a principle. Covey describes principles as being timeless, universal and inarguable. Understanding the relationship between principles, beliefs, values and systems enables you to act correctly in a consistent fashion. Principles provide the unwavering why which should govern our beliefs values and systems. The biggest lesson I have learned beyond viewing humility as a principle is that you need to have at least a couple people who you trust and can play a critical role. They need to be available to provide consistent candid feedback. You will need their help to stay the course regarding humility in the face of accolades and personal recognition. The joy of serving people as a leader easily surpasses any shallow satisfaction that you receive from ego based recognition.

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