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Leadership & Humility–A Former CEO’s Perspective

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In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins shares research showing that the most effective leaders combine humility with strong personal will.

I’ve been fortunate to know such a leader, Homer L. Deakins, Jr. When Deakins became Managing Partner (equivalent to CEO), Ogletree Deakins was a relatively small southeast law firm. Under his leadership, the firm created an entrepreneurial culture and expanded throughout the country. It has now grown to over 750 attorneys in 46 cities across North America and Europe. In our interview, which can be read in full here, Deakins discusses the importance of humility in effective leadership. Here are his principal observations:

Retire the “Command & Control” style of management.

“I’ve had bosses that gave you orders and simply expected you to obey them—keep your mouth shut and don’t ask questions. These types of bosses limit their own success. If you’re a control freak, you won’t benefit from the ideas of others, and you won’t inspire people to give you their best effort. As I learned from some of my clients, organizations thrive when leaders dedicate themselves to employee involvement, including letting employees participate in decision-making and experience a personal sense or success and contribution.”

Humility must be combined with willpower.

“It’s never about the leader. It’s always about the organization. Yet at the same time, to be an effective leader, you have to have a strong determination to get things done.”

Overcoming resistance to change:

“When you embark on a program to make significant organizational change, you’re guaranteed to encounter resistance. I certainly did when our firm changed from a conservative, control-oriented to a more open, entrepreneurial model. The keys for me in overcoming resistance were (a) doing lots of listening; (b) being persistent; (c) continuing to emphasize that the change was not about me but about the long-term health and success of our firm; and (d) not letting my own feelings get in the way, including when resistance became personal and directed toward me.”

What’s a good roadmap for becoming a humble yet powerful leader?

“Adopt five practices:

  1. Identify a few, simple, understandable core goals, and pursue them with strong determination.
  2. Dispense with the notion that you’re the leader because you’re smarter or know more; instead, make it a point to learn from others. Be curious about other people’s ideas and be willing to pursue them even if they don’t seem that great at first.
  3. Create opportunities for your employees to enjoy a personal sense of success.
  4. Emphasize transparency—it’s almost always better to share information with employees than withhold it.
  5. Remember that being a leader doesn’t mean talking, it means listening!”

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