Humble Entrepreneur

Fred A. Mael

A middle-aged man who feels pride of accomplishment for having a fuller head of hair than his peers is a fool. A woman who takes credit for having long legs or who thinks her diet or exercise regimen should take credit for her bone structure is equally silly. Even a corporate executive who ignores the benefits of the education, breeding and connections provided by his parents and their network, and who claims that all of his success is a function of his hard work, lacks credibility.

But what about the entrepreneur?  Isn’t a business founder a self-made man or woman who can take full credit for success? After all, who else put in the bulk of the hard work, made the tough decisions, and took the financial and personal risks? Isn’t that how successful business founders portray themselves in business magazine interviews – the lonely hero, persevering by sheer grit? Yet even there, it’s not the whole story. The entrepreneur may be endowed with intelligence, attractiveness, and self-confidence – all thanks to  parental gene pool. The paid education may have helped, or the access to capital, or the many mentors along the way. Perhaps the stint in the military or the time being coached on a sports team was an advantage. Unfortunately, the less- and non-successful folks don’t get the chance to tell us whether or not they worked just as hard. If 80% of the new restaurants started in a given period fail, the “winners” will give full credit to their hard work, but no one really knows that the other 80% failed because of lack of effort.

This brings us to an undervalued but essential managerial quality – humility.

What Humility is and isn’t

Humility does not mean an “aw shucks” demeanor in which people downplay their skills and their accomplishments or act unaware of them. It does not mean lacking self-confidence, self-esteem, ambition or a grasp on reality. Many great, forceful leaders have been humble. True humility  means acknowledging that one is a recipient of gifts and opportunities that one has used well.  People know that they are smart, persuasive, or visionary and their resumes speak for themselves. The difference is that the humble don’t delude themselves that they did it all themselves or that everybody else had all the opportunities to do the same. Just as they had advantages, others have built-in shortcomings. If they don’t make the best of what they have, one may have some right to be critical, but one doesn’t pretend that all others had the same opportunities. The humble are also capable of  acknowledging that others have gifts that they themselves lack, that they can learn from others, and that they are  capable of being  wrong or making mistakes.

Leadership expert Jeffrey Krames writes that humility is one of the most underrated of all leadership qualities. Still, the value of leader humility is becoming more widely recognized. Jim Collins in Good to Great says that the best leaders combine healthy ego with humility and fully  acknowledge the vital contributions of others to their companies’ successes. According to a recent study by Bradley Owens and David Hekman  published in Academy of Management Journal, humble leaders are both better liked and more effective. A follow-up study in Organization Science shows that humble leaders have more learning-oriented teams, more engaged employees, and lower voluntary employee turnover.  Nitin Nohria, Dean of Harvard Business School, asserts that moral humility is the most important thing that can be taught at business schools like his.

Arrogant Blind Spots

The findings make sense when one considers the blind spots of arrogant leaders who lack humility:

 Missed feedback – arrogant leaders know all the answers and can learn nothing from those around them.

Misjudging people’s limitations – arrogant leaders assume that because they are more quick-witted or confident than others, they should talk over them or cut them off, and will miss nothing by doing so. They thereby deny themselves warnings about problems, oversights, and potential technical or public relations disasters that may be brewing.

Scapegoating – arrogant leaders can never be at fault, so someone else has to take the blame or the fall for failures.

Ethical lapses – arrogant leaders have no brakes on their rationalizations and their justifications (who else’s opinions matter?) and so are vulnerable to ethical lapses that could endanger their companies.

Sense of entitlement– the arrogant leader feels unstoppable and deserving of all success, and so cannot understand how someone else could work harder, be smarter, or be more responsive to a client’s needs. They are certain that customers who chose other suppliers are mistaken.

By contrast, the leader with healthy humility sets the tone for a learning organization in which people can be corrected and educated and can complement and support each other. The staff is more engaged, more likely to be loyal, and more likely to expend greater effort.

And one last thought – remember that line about the meek inheriting the earth? The correct translation of Psalms 37:11 is that “the humble shall inherit the earth”.




Fred Mael, PhD, helps organizations and their employees work more effectively, and coaches executives and managers.