Australian culture is very down to earth. If you drive a Ferrari, you’re more likely to be branded “ostentatious” and have a key dragged down the side of your car, than you are to be applauded and perhaps told “good on you, you’ve really made it!” as may happen in other cultures.
The reason for this is that in Australia we are, generally, a humble people. And this is a value which we at Sharp & Carter really respect, and that forms the final of our culture pillars. In previous articles I have spoken about our first three culture pillars of Trust, Generosity and Care, and now it is time to round it out with number four – Humility.
In 2012, Google undertook a study titled “Project Aristotle”. The purpose of this study was to discover the commonalities in high performing teams – what makes one? Initially, the study really struggled as there weren’t really any common traits between team members in the obvious categories of skills, education, the way they were structured or organised, intellect, seniority, or personality types.
Upon further study though, what the project did ultimately end up finding was that one commonality between these teams was “psychological safety”. In layman’s terms; no one wants to put on a ‘‘work face’’ when they get to the office, they don’t want to leave part of their personality or inner workings at home.
Many might ask, what exactly does it mean to be fully present at work, and to feel ‘‘psychologically safe?” It means knowing that we can be free enough to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. That we can talk about what is messy or sad or have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy.
In other words, we need to be able to be authentically ourselves. And authenticity requires vulnerability, which in turn, requires humility.
In my opinion, good leadership requires three things: courage, relationships and empathy. The first two pretty much speak for themselves, however empathy is one that has layers – really, it is derived from humility. A quote I read recently from Seth Godin put it simply as; “Empathy can only occur in direct proportion to our own self-acceptance”. It can only occur if we are humble.
What this means essentially is that it is only by being aware of and accepting the flaws of our own emotions and our own minds, that we are then able to look at the flaws of the emotions and minds of others, and rather than judge them or hate them, feel compassion for them. Empathy, and humility, are not qualities easily associated to someone who might also be labelled arrogant or lacking in self-awareness.
How we achieve humility in our leadership at Sharp & Carter is not dissimilar to how we achieve trust, generosity or care, our other three pillars – it starts at the top (or the bottom as you will read later!).
In Jim Collins’ book “From Good to Great”, substantial research is utilised to show that humility predicts effective leadership. Humility is associated with minimising status differences, listening to subordinates, soliciting input, admitting mistakes and being willing to change course when a plan seems not to work.
In minimising status differences at Sharp & Carter, every year we set an overall business sales target, which if reached, rewards the entire business with a long weekend away together. In most organisations, this is a reward only achievable by the highest billers – at Sharp & Carter it is everyone. This means that each and every person contributes and each and every person gets rewarded. Furthermore, in reference to my Ferrari comment earlier – at Sharp & Carter we provide cars to Partners, but to keep them humble (as well as to avoid their cars getting keyed!), and to further minimise status differences, we restrict the purchases to either a Mazda, Subaru or Toyota.
In terms of leading from a place of humility, humble leadership is really just another way of describing servant-based leadership. We have seen leaders at Sharp & Carter move into leadership roles and then become obsessed with outcomes and control and treat employees as a means to an end. But what this results in is employees who fear not hitting KPI’s, employees who fear failure, and as such, employees whose positive emotions decrease.
In practicality, your starting point as a leader is critical – are you sitting on top “directing” or are you at the bottom “serving”? The mindset here is critical, are you the most important or are you the most valuable? Humble leaders ask their employees what they can do to help make their role easier and more enjoyable, rather than try to control them. At Sharp & Carter, the responsibility of a leader is to increase the ownership, autonomy, and responsibility of followers — to encourage them to think for themselves and to try out their own ideas.
As a group, the leaders at Sharp & Carter have all agreed that we exist to “Serve and care for our people to ensure their individual fulfilment”. I often say to the leaders of Sharp & Carter that we (as leaders) are at the bottom of the food chain. In other words, the organisational hierarchy pyramid of Sharp & Carter is inverted with the pointy end at the bottom. In this way we have the decision-making power of all of our 115 people, rather than the decision-making power of just the elite 15.
For me personally, humility is probably one of my natural character strengths, but it is also one I work to practice on a daily basis. Just because I founded this company and my name is on the door does not mean that I am resting on my laurels and not constantly looking for ways to add value. I work hard to be a valued member of the team, I often apologise to our people for mistakes I have made, and I am endlessly pragmatic that the direction we have chosen has its positives, but also its negatives.
In summary, humility is hugely important in our business and I could talk about it for days, but I think two people far smarter than me sum it up pretty well:
In Ryan Holiday’s book “Ego is the Enemy” he says; “Ego is the enemy of what you want and of what you have: Of mastering a craft. Of real creative insight. Of working well with others. Of building loyalty and support. Of longevity. Of repeating and retaining your success. It repulses advantages and opportunities. It’s a magnet for enemies and errors.”
Another great reference is when nine-time Grammy–and Pulitzer Prize–winning jazz musician Wynton Marsalis once advised a promising young musician on the mind-set required in the lifelong study of music; “Humility engenders learning because it beats back the arrogance that puts blinders on. It leaves you open for truths to reveal themselves. You don’t stand in your own way.… Do you know how you can tell when someone is truly humble? I believe there’s one simple test: because they consistently observe and listen, the humble improve. They don’t assume, ‘I know the way.’ No matter what you’ve done up to this point, you better still be a student. If you’re not still learning, you’re already dying.”