Hubris to Humilty
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Hubris to Humility – stepping stones to greatness

This article was first published in Executive Excellence, December 2003.

‘And they got out of their seats and applauded,’ said Ray Mundy, Manging Director of John Sands (the greeting card people), ‘I’ve never had a client organisation respond like that.’  Ray was relating his experience after using The Question Generator with a key client group of marketing executives.   Ray enjoyed the experience of being warmly applauded but those who know him will tell you that he is a quiet achiever, not an applause seeker. 

What happened?  What was different about this presentation?
‘I only spoke for about fifteen minutes.  The rest of the time was spent answering questions.  Normally when asking for questions you get a poor response, but this time I used the Question Generator and received questions from everyone.  I didn’t have answers for some.  But I was determined to not fudge.  When someone asked me a question about a stuff-up I acknowledged the problem and our part in it,’ said Ray, ‘They loved it.’

Ray took a risk with his client to confront some of the truths as they saw them.  A year earlier he would have given a more traditional presentation.  In mid 2002 Ray became interested in Jim Collins’ book “Good to Great” and a few months later embarked on a leadership development program with Leadership Australia.  Let’s briefly review Jim Collins’ research.  

Collins sought answers to the question, what makes a good company a great company? He set two criteria for greatness.  To be “great” an organisation must have

He examined nearly 1500 companies and found only eleven met or surpassed the criteria.  He then investigated the eleven companies and came up with what seemed to be surprising results.   Without exception the CEO’s who oversaw the initial periods of greatness showed two personal attributes to a high degree - fierce resolve and humility.  Collins found that within months of taking the helm the CEO’s showed a fierce resolve to minimise hubris and seek the truth with all its consequences.  They used their humility to foster a tremendous sense of team.

Minimising hubris, seeking the truth and building the teams.  Seems simple doesn’t it?  How deeply is hubris embedded in your company?  You can begin to answer this question yourself by assessing where your organisation fits on the FIBS:ROCK spectrum.


Most cultures are a mixture of FIBS and ROCK but tend towards the FIBS (hubris) end.  In FIBS cultures, people Flatter anyone who might be useful to them, Inflate their own contribution to a successful project, say “yes” to everyone but Break commitments to all but important people and Scapegoat others.  By contrast in ROCK cultures, people Respect others, Own their part when problems occur, Credit other people for their contributions and Keep commitments.  We can see now that all of the “great” CEO’s made shifting the culture of the executive team to high ROCK their first priority.  

It’s one thing to know where your organisation fits on the FIBS:ROCK spectrum.  It’s quite another thing to do something about it.  There are many hidden blockers to minimising hubris. 

The CEO and his executives often have difficulty in letting go of tendencies towards heroic leadership that are inherent in our society.  Heroic leaders, who are usually male, often resort to underhand means in order to win and look good.  These behaviours support the development of FIBS cultures.  The heroic leader is often driven by unrecognised fears of not being needed or of others being powerful.  They seek to accumulate power and disempower others. 

The high ROCK CEO has to embark on a systematic process to ensure his or her team understands and consistently models ROCK behaviours to staff, clients and all their stakeholders.  They have to review and realign recruitment, performance appraisal and other HR processes many of which if left unchanged will subtly undermine ROCK because they support the old FIBS behaviours. 

In addition, leaders are blocked by their absence of skills.  They need new skills to work with teams.  Ask yourself, “Where you do your best thinking?”   Do you think best in the shower, in bed, whilst driving along the road, maybe it’s out jogging?  Notice how often the thinking is solitary.  We all need to learn new methods of thinking within teams - to share, not just our fully formed thoughts, but our half formed thoughts.  We need to learn new methods of encouraging questions like Ray Mundy from John Sands, in the example I began with.   And we need to demonstrate our ROCK values when we give our answers.  If we can do this we will be taking important steps towards building a great organisation.