‘Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble,
When you’re perfect in every way
I can’t wait to look in the mirror
Cause I get better looking each day’
Most people will be familiar with the lyrics from this Mac Davis song. Here’s my thesis. A dilemma for senior executives (albeit, one seldom discussed), is maintaining humility. When people write up your thoughts, book your travel, laugh at (all of) your jokes and otherwise curry favour, you start to lose perspective. The problem? If you lose perspective, you start to make stupid decisions and people are afraid to say: ’The Emperor has no clothes”. Given enough exposure to high office, even the most grounded individuals can begin to act like they are part of the Ming Dynasty (get it?). Now, you may be thinking “Not I”. But, losing humility sneaks up on you. Before we consider how to guard against this, lets consider the recent election of Pope Francis. Stay with me on this one for another minute or so.
Church Structures: In the Catholic Church there are different ‘types’ of priests. Diocesan Priests work in Parishes; others are connected to particular Orders and work in specialist areas (education, dealing with poverty etc.). Historically, the Jesuit community was heavily involved in education. At one point they operated more than 300 Universities across Europe. I know this from my time working in the National College of Ireland – which was founded by the Jesuits in the early 1950’s as a vehicle to educate workers (who couldn’t access 3rd level education at that time).
Choosing the Route: The Jesuits have long held a reputation as the ‘intelligentsia’ within the church. An old joke underscored this. A woman, hoping her son would become a priest, was confused by all the options and asked the Parish Priest for advice:
“Well, he could become a Diocesan Priest.”
“Ok. And how long would that take?”
“About 6 years. Alternatively, he could become a Franciscan. You’d recognize them by their dress code. They wear long brown robes.”
“Yes, I’ve seen them. How long would that take?”
“About 9 years. Or he could become a Jesuit.”
“Right. What sort of time are we talking about?”
“14 years, give or take.”
“That’s grand,” she said. “I’ll put his name down for the Jesuits.”
“Is it because he’s a very religious boy?” the Parish Priest inquired.
“No, not at all. It’s just that he’s a slow learner.”
Authority Structures: Different parts of the church operate different mechanisms to elect leaders to office. We are all familiar by the Curia meeting behind closed doors in Rome to elect the new Pope with the ritual of black/white smoke, which denotes a decision. In the Diocesan world, the career ladder is straightforward. A priest can get promoted to Parish Priest, Monsignor, Bishop, Cardinal and Pope. It’s a little different in the Orders. Each of the people holds a leadership office for a fixed period of time.
Office Rotations: This is more akin to the University system where people hold office (e.g. Dean of the Business School) for a period and then revert to their former job. The Good News about this rotational system is that it stops people developing an inflated notion of themselves, taking on the mantle of ‘Being in Charge’ – believing that they are smarter than everyone else (“If they were smarter than me, I would be working for them”). But this system has one major hidden imperfection. When the role is rotated (sometimes referred to as ‘Muggins Turn’), many leaders become paralyzed, afraid to make waves for fear of distancing themselves from colleagues. They are all too aware of having to ‘go back into the fold’ at some future point in time and do nothing to rock the boat. In the worst cases, the leadership role represents little more than a temporary title on a business card.
I read the recent reports of the new Pope Francis, washing the feet of women prisoners in Italy. If you are the CEO, perhaps suggesting that you wash the feet of the front-line staff is not the best idea to engage the troops. But, having the humility to make this type of gesture is critically important. The central question is: do you lead with humility? And, when you don’t (and we all fall down on this one), do you have someone with the guts to tell you? Terry Neill, former MD of Accenture stated this forcefully when he said: “When you start to believe your own bullshit, you’re in trouble”.
Sweet Spot: The target point is to lead your organization with conviction and without fear of being unpopular. David Cameron said: “If Christopher Columbus had an advisory committee, he would probably be still stuck in the Dock”. But, and here’s the rub, can you lead in this confident way without becoming Attila the Hun?
PS Lighter Note: FIFTY SHADES OF GREY – Pensioners Version (note larger type).
Having written a number of ‘worst sellers’ – I’ve decided to shamelessly copy the success created by other authors. I think that my next book is going to be a real winner. Here’s a sneak preview…
The heat from the fire was comforting as the three electric bars glowed brightly in their metal cage. Nora peeked across the room over the rim of her Reader’s Digest. Gerald was snoring lightly, with his half-moon spectacles balanced on the end of his nose, a thin ribbon of drool sliding down his chin onto the edge of his striped pyjamas. His half-read newspaper had fallen to the floor, and the cat had curled up on top of the unfinished crossword.
She closed her book, turning over the corner of the page she had been reading so as not to lose the article on herbaceous borders, and placed it down next to her half–drunk Horlicks. Nora slid out of her chair, and grabbed the armrest. Carefully kicking off her sheepskin slippers and, sliding the wheeled hostess trolley out of the way, she hitched up her velvet dressing gown and padded towards him.
She slid her hand under his pyjama top, rubbing his arm gently. He smacked his lips together, as though he could taste the cod in parsley sauce they had for supper. His eyes flickered open and he squinted at the light and the looming shadow in front of him. Even with the cataracts, Gerald could see she wanted him to follow her.
He took off his glasses and placed them on the coffee table as he rose out of his chair, his knees and back cracking as he straightened. She reached forward and grabbed the long-shaft of his walking stick, gnarled and rough, and placed it in his hand.
Nora began to negotiate the stairs, gripping the banister, the light from the landing highlighting grey roots in her blue rinse. Gerald could hardly wait to get to bed; he settled onto the green padded cushion of his Stannah stair lift and flicked the button, slowly ascending towards her waddling behind as she stumbled up the last two steps. Nora waltzed into the bathroom, anticipating the moments ahead while Gerald sank down on the edge of the double divan. She returned after a few moments, passing a cold and cloudy glass of tap water into which he dropped his teeth with a quiet splash. She placed her own glass onto the bedside table and removed her top denture, dropping it into the glass and adding the cleaning tablet with a plop and a fizz. Gerald had already slid under the 15-tog duvet and was smoothing out the wrinkles on his V-pillow.
Nora slipped her shoulders out of her gown and placed it next to the commode, then slid under the paisley polyester, her hand brushing Gerald’s as she fumbled for the TV remote. Gerald gripped the handrail as he slid open the drawer under the dimly lit touch lamp and pulled out a blister pack of Viagra, his face falling as he realized it was empty. He could’ve sworn there were a couple left. Nora smiled to herself as she pressed the remote and the TV flickered into life on the opening credits of Come Dine with Me – Omnibus edition.
She sank back into the memory foam pillow and her eyes glinted happily knowing that Gerald would not be able to get another doctor’s appointment until late next week and that the little blue pills dissolving in the U-bend of the toilet would be completely gone by the morning.
PS Executive Relaxation: Nice piece from Britain’s Got Talent – Attraction Shadow Act. Take 2 minutes to reboot those tired batteries.
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