Three Profiles in Organizational Humility

There is nothing like humility in a leader to bring out the best in people. Humble leaders provoke levels of loyalty, commitment and performance that more ego-centric ones can’t quite understand.

To a large extent, the same can be said of organizations. When combined with a clear sense of purpose and drive, humility can propel a seemingly ordinary company to achieve uncommon results, usually by creating an environment of teamwork and willingness to learn from mistakes.

Over the course of the past few years, I’ve been fortunate to have access to three very different world-class organizations that impressed me with their humility and, frankly, surprised me. I was shocked because everything I had previously heard about them seemed to contrast what their critics had led me to believe.

A Trip to Bentonville

The first of these organizations is none other than WalMart. Yes, WalMart. I spent a day last year at their headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., and had no idea what I was in for.

Having heard again and again about how WalMart was dominating and controlling the retail industry and mistreating employees, I was expecting to arrive at a main campus resembling one of the many high-tech country clubs I’ve grown accustomed to seeing in the Silicon Valley. What I found in Bentonville was a collection of buildings that were neither uniform nor impressive, many of which seemed to be converted warehouses and strip-mall quality structures from the 1970s. I loved it! And there was no separate executive suite with a different set of standards.

These titans of industry were working in facilities that were no more comfortable or grand than those of the people who worked in their stores around the country and the world. And inside those buildings, the stories were no different. Neat and clean, but more like a DMV than a palace. And the cafeteria where I had lunch reminded me of junior high school.

But the humility at WalMart went far beyond the physical environment. The people there were uniformly friendly, gracious and unpretentious. But don’t misunderstand. They were also very bright and had levels of experience, education and knowledge rivaling any other corporation I had seen. But you would never know it by the way they treated one another. And everyone, from senior executives to the ladies running the cash registers in the cafeteria, were treated with the same levels of respect and kindness. All of which seemed to create an environment of genuine enthusiasm and commitment among employees.

As for their reaction to the barrage of criticism leveled at them by competitors and the media, they were neither bitter nor angry. Instead, they seemed genuinely open to finding any truth in the accusations so they could address them, and then determined to calmly set the record straight in the many areas where they were being unfairly accused.

Two Days at the Academy

The second organization that impressed me with its humility is the United States Military Academy at West Point. I had a chance to visit the campus for two days last year with my father, and we were each overwhelmed by what we experienced.

From the general who ran the school itself and the officers and professors who taught the courses to the cadets and enlisted men who worked security at the front gate, humility was the dominant and undeniable trait shared by all. And this went far beyond the “Yes sirs,” and “No sirs,” that one would expect to find at a military institution.

Here were the very best and brightest young people in the nation, who had academic, extracurricular and athletic backgrounds that would be the envy of any college, and you would have thought that none of them had seen their own resumes.

And like WalMart, people of every rank and age and gender were treated with uniform levels of respect and kindness. My father, who had served as an enlisted man in the army for a few years more than 30 years ago, was treated by three-star generals as though he were their military peer.

So many people who have never known a West Point cadet or visited the campus assume that arrogance and macho must rule the day there. Nothing could be further from the truth. While there is certainly no lack of courage and character among the men and women who attend and run the institution, none of them seem to have a need to prove that to anyone other than themselves. God bless them for what they’re doing.

A Championship Team

The final organization I want to cite for its humility is a high school football team. Actually, it’s not a team so much as it is a school and a sports program. I live near De La Salle High School, an all-male Christian Brothers institution that has become known for being the best high school football team in the history of the sport, or for that matter, any sport. Over the course of 15 years, the team won 151 consecutive games, and traveled extensively to play the best teams they could find.

I had heard many stories about the De La Salle football factory over the years, and the allegations of recruiting great players from faraway places to stack the deck in their favor. All of which led to my astonishment at what I would find when I attended a few of their games and came to know something about their coach and program in general.

First, walking into their “stadium” is both a let-down and a breath of fresh air. The facility itself is tiny. Tiny. After more than 20 years of unparalleled success, most schools would have been tempted to construct a monument to football. Not De La Salle. You can drive by the school and pass the field and mistake it for a junior high school.

On top of that, there is not mention anywhere of the exploits of the football team. No championship signs. No shrine to their coaches or players. Nothing. The only meaningful tribute I’ve ever seen there was a painting of a player who was tragically murdered last year. And that’s the thing about De La Salle. It’s not about football, or championships, or fame. It’s about the way people treat people.

I had a chance to hear the team’s head coach speak at an event last year, and I can honestly say that I’ve never been moved so much by a talk. Coach Ladoceur was not stylishly dressed, and was by no means a particularly eloquent or fiery or demonstrative speaker. Keep in mind that this is a guy who has been profiled on ESPN and in Sports Illustrated, and has had many of the nation’s finest coaches at every level seek his advice. I would have expected even a bad high school football coach to be a little brash. But Ladoceur oozed humility.

Every statement he made had meaning, and almost none of it was about him. He talked about the fact that he considers himself a religion teacher and character mentor first and foremost, and that he does not and never will actively recruit kids to come to his school. He said he admires his players for having skills and talents and potential that he could only dream of. And there was no doubt in my mind that he meant every word he said.

What did I learn from WalMart, West Point and De La Salle? That humility is powerful, but cannot be attained out of desire for power. It is its own aim, and its own reward. I also learned that one of the costs of being humbly successful is that others will throw stones at you, and that humility requires that you throw none back.

Finally, I realized that humble organizations are open to learning from others. WalMart and West Point had asked me to come teach them about teamwork. As I told them, that seemed ridiculous to me. But as they told me, there is always more that they can learn. Which is what humility is all about, I suppose.

Patrick Lencioni is a best-selling author and president of The Table Group. This article was re-printed with the permission of The Table Group and originally appeared in the newsletter, The Table Group Quarterly. 

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