Humility: What All Truly Great Leaders Have In Common

In Good to Great, management expert Jim Collins and his team of researchers spend 15,000 hours trying to figure out why some companies achieve greatness while other companies don’t. They studied companies that, after 15 years of average performance, had a transition point that led to sustained growth that then beat the general market performance by at least 300% for the next 15 years.  

They scoured the Fortune 500, and found a mere eleven companies that qualified.  To give that perspective, companies like Coca-Cola, GE, Intel, Motorola and Wal-Mart didn’t make the cut.  While very good companies, they’re not considered to be the “good to great” ones. Next, the author and his research team found a comparison company in each industry group which had “good” performance, then analyzed them side-by-side, for a total of twenty-two companies.

One striking principle they found was the leadership style of the eleven CEOs of the “good to great” companies.  Collins held the presupposition going into the research that when people see a problem they just say, “It’s a leadership problem.  So everything boils down to leadership.” 

So when his research team started coming to him with reports about the difference in the chief executives of these companies, he dismissed them.  In fact, early in the project he said, “I kept insisting, 'Ignore the executives,'" but the research team kept pushing back.

“No,” they said. “There’s something consistently unusual about them. We can’t ignore them."

And, Collins would respond,  “But comparison companies also had leaders, even some great leaders. So what’s different?” And back and forth they went. 

"Finally," he wrote, "as should always be the case, the data won. The good to great executives were all cut from the same cloth." They found that many of the comparison (good but not great) companies had dynamic, charismatic, bigger that life leaders, but in all of the good to great companies, without exception, the leaders were found to be men of compelling modesty and humility. 

In contrast to the very eccentric style of the comparison company leaders, they were struck by how the “good to great” leaders didn’t even talk about themselves.  And it wasn’t just false modesty.  Those who worked with or wrote about the “good to great” leaders continually used words like quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing, understated, did not believe his own clippings, and so forth.  

Isn’t it fascinating that in the highest performing companies in the entire world—remember, only eleven made the cut—that in every single case, at the helm was a CEO who can only be described as a humble man. That’s a 100% correlation—almost unheard of in social sciences research. The data is so striking, we are forced to consider that it’s not merely correlation, but causation—which is exactly what the Bible says.

The Bible establishes a causal link between humility and greatness. Jesus put it like this: “The greatest among you will be your servant” (Matthew 23:11). And he added, “For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthews 23:12). In fact, “favor to the humble” is a law of creation: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5, James 4:6).

But we have a problem. As with any moral imperative, none of us can actually do "humble" in our strength, can we? Seriously, is there anything in your history that even remotely suggests you can be humble on your own? Jesus, on the other hand, was the most humble man who ever lived and, by prayerfully depending on Him to live in and through us by faith, we can conquer our pride. 

The irony of greatness is that we obtain it by seeking what appears to be its opposite. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11).

Actually, everything really does boil down to leadership. Humble leadership. So forget the fancy footwork. Charisma may get you to “good,” but if you really want to be “great,” be humble. Even if you have to wait longer for your turn. “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s might hand, that he may life you up in due time” (1 Peter 5:6). It will be worth the wait, however long it takes.

Until every church disciples every man…