The rise of the ‘H’ Factor

Abhijit Bhaduri | Updated on November 08, 2018 Published on November 07, 2018

Humble leaders are aware of their own weaknesses but feel secure enough to ask others for help — and listen to suggestions. That’s the new leadership model

Technology has created new business models. We are looking to technology to solve some of humanities’ greatest challenges — from healthcare to education and climate change. In the process, a new model of leadership is emerging.

The CEO of a tech company fears that, “People’s personal data is being “weaponized” with “military efficiency,” and technology is being used to deepen divisions and “undermine our sense of what is true and what is false.”

This really made me sit up and take notice. After all, the speaker is Tim Cook, CEO of the trillion-dollar behemoth, Apple. Isn’t the business model of a tech company dependent on mining and harvesting personal data? Cook disagrees, “Data assembled to create a digital profile lets companies know you better than you know yourself. This is surveillance.”

Tim Cook’s style of leadership seemed to resonate with this year’s list of the world’s Best Performing CEOs compiled by HBR. The top three CEOs were Pablo Isla (Inditex), followed by Jensen Huang (Nvidia) followed by Bernard Arnault (LVMH). The retailing giant Inditex has the distinction of having its CEO top the list for two years in a row. The list takes into account the financial returns during the CEO’s tenure. Seven out of the top ten CEOs in this list were there last year too.

The humble leader

Many of these CEOs have flown under the radar. They look very different from the brash and flamboyant CEOs we have seen before, who constantly seek the spotlight. Since 2013, only six CEOs have appeared every year: Jeffrey Bezos, of Amazon; Pablo Isla, of Inditex; Blake Nordstrom, of Nordstrom; Paolo Rocca, of Tenaris; James Taiclet Jr., of American Tower; and Renato Alves Vale, of CCR.

On the basis of financial performance alone, Bezos has topped this list since 2014. The company’s stock price has grown more than six-fold since then. Despite turning Amazon into the second trillion-dollar market cap company, he keeps the company humble by putting every day as “day one”. “Day two is stasis, followed by irrelevance, followed by excruciating painful decline, followed by death.”

One of the sharpest shifts in corporate culture in recent times has been at Microsoft. While Steve Ballmer was all about chest-thumping bravado where a leader was meant to be a know-it-all, Satya Nadella is a study in contrast. He talks of changing the culture from a know-it-all to a learn-it-all culture. He has been humble about the way he has handled his success. Ego gets the spotlight but humility gets results.

Even in the senior leadership meetings, Nadella has invited the young leaders of the newly acquired companies to meetings which were restricted to a select few senior leaders. ‘Humble leaders outperform arrogant leaders’ is the new belief that runs through the company. The leader does not need to have all the answers. The leader’s job is to get the best from others.

Does humility come in the way of ambition? Clearly not. Microsoft has made more than $100 billion in revenue over the past fiscal year. It is more than what it has ever done. Despite being late to the cloud computing game, Azure is ahead of Google and second only to Amazon.

Five attributes

Kibeom Lee and Michael Ashton are convinced that Honesty-Humility is a new personality element that is made up of five attributes: Sincerity, Modesty, Fairness, Truthfulness and Unpretentious behaviour. Leaders who are high on the H factor put the spotlight on the team rather than on themselves. While such leaders are high on ambition, they liberally seek help from others and listen to feedback from others. Such leaders handle success without glowing in the I-did-it-all feeling. We have all seen scores of examples of leaders who will attribute all success to themselves and ascribe failure to reasons outside of themselves. When others ignore their accomplishments, most leaders feel annoyed.

They feel that they are more talented than others around and are entitled to being treated as special. Humble leaders are aware of their own weaknesses and are eager to improve themselves. These leaders acknowledge others’ strengths and appreciate them, the upper management team listens to divergent views and collaborates better.

The high H leadership style

In the analogue world, the leader was expected to have all the answers because the way ahead was already known. The maps were available. All one had to do was to follow the instructions given by the leader. The one who ran up the beaten path more efficiently than others won the race. So everyone around was a competitor.

A new leadership style is emerging in the midst of the digital tsunami. The leader is not the one who has all the questions, but feels secure enough to ask others for help and listens deeply to suggestions. That needs a leader who is secure enough to look vulnerable. The world is too complicated to be run on a single person’s point of view. The humble leader is best suited to succeed in a world full of unknowns because this style gets the best from people. That’s what is the new leadership model.

Abhijit Bhaduri is a talent management expert, a leadership coach and the author of Digital Tsunami

Published on November 07, 2018
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