By Roger Trapp
In Leading Matters, by John Hennessy, chairman of the Google parent company Alphabet, muses on a remarkable career that has seen him progress from a youthful professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University when the technological revolution was really just beginning to various leadership roles, culminating in the presidency, at the prestigious California institution that has spawned so many of the success stories of that revolution. He has also cofounded a semi-conductor company and received the Turing award, regarded as the Nobel Prize of the computing industry. And yet the first chapter of his book, subtitled “Lessons from My Journey,” is devoted to humility as “the basis for effective leadership.”
This does not appear to be false modesty on Hennessy’s part. He points out that he gains his humility from two perspectives – his luck in being born in the U.S. in the middle of the last century to a middle-class family that valued education and his awareness that as a member of an academic community there will almost always be somebody close at hand who knows more about a given subject than he does. But he is also at pains to stress that humility should not be confused with a lack of confidence. Rather, he believes that “real confidence – that is, not a mask of confidence, or phone bravado, or worst of all, misplaced confidence, but a true sense of one’s own skills and character – arises not from ego, but from humility”. Arrogance, he writes, “sees only our strengths, ignores our weaknesses, and overlooks the strengths of others, therefore leaving us vulnerable to catastrophic mistakes. Humility shows us where our weaknesses lie so we can compensate for them. Humility makes us earn our confidence.”
Nor is Hennessy alone in seeing the value in humility. In a recent interview, Daniel Dines, chief executive and co-founder of Uipath, the robotic process automation company, spoke of the need for humility in his business. Acknowledging that knowing what makes humans tick is especially important when developing the machines to work alongside them, he believes that humility “makes you listen and gives you the ability to change. It stops ego getting in the way.”
That is something of a contrast with the attitude in the company when it was starting out in 2005. Then, the idea was that “a few colleagues were working together to build the best technology we could,” said Dines. “We didn’t care about customers.” Then, as the developers began to work more closely with customers they discovered “a very interesting truth – the customers are smarter than you.”
It is a point also made by Malcolm Frank, executive vice president for strategy and marketing at Cognizant, the international IT services business that is at the forefront of helping established businesses go digital. There are a lot of people in technology companies, he says, “who think they know better” than the people to whom they are seeking to sell. Cognizant, by contrast, goes to a lot of effort to really try to understand customers and their needs, through such means as employing anthropologists and other specialists to observe people as they go about their work instead of just asking them questions about it.
Just as Dines and his colleagues developed a little humility after their initial focusing on just being the best they could be, Hennessy is adamant that humility can be developed as a part of being a leader, “like courage and decisiveness”. Leading with humility, he adds, “means letting others announce your accomplishments because you don’t need to, it means realizing and openly admitting that your understanding might not be right, it means willingly soliciting assistance because you know you need the help, it means taking the opportunity to learn from mistakes, and it means stepping up to the moments that challenge and grow you.”
But it does not mean a lack of ambition. Rather than being ambitious for personal gain, Hennessy says he aims to make a difference, to benefit the institution and the community he serves. “Perhaps the only way to be both humble and ambitious is to be ambitious for the good of others,” suggests Hennessy, recalling that in the early days of MIPS he learned that leading in a startup environment required not separating yourself from your subordinates but by becoming their equal on the team. “Your job is not to tell people what to do, but to dedicate yourself to helping them do better,” he writes. That sounds like a good rule for any organization, not just a startup.
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