I started my career as a secretary at a small, nine-person real estate firm. Like many people just starting out, I didn’t think too critically about leadership. I simply assumed that the people with the biggest offices, the fanciest titles, and the highest salaries were the leaders in our company. I sat in a small cubicle, had a not-so-fancy title, and was barely making rent—how could I be a leader?
But as I progressed through the ranks of corporate America, I began to realize that there were many people with big offices, big parking spots, and big egos who were not leading. As a former CEO, I can tell you this: Not all CEOs are leaders, and not all leaders are CEOs.
There’s no doubt that position and title give you authority and the power to make rules. But whether in business, nonprofits, or politics, my experience has taught me a fundamental truth about leadership: It has nothing to do with your position or title. Leadership is about solving problems and unlocking the potential in others.
The best leaders I have trained, worked alongside, or worked under have therefore been skilled collaborators. You can’t lead unless you understand how to work with people—especially people who are different from you.
That sounds obvious, but building the skills to effectively collaborate with people who are different from us—those who have unfamiliar identities, experiences, and ideas—requires deliberation and practice. Most of us are more comfortable working with people who think and act like we do, because they won’t challenge our beliefs.
But research shows that, despite the discomfort and occasional frustration, effective collaboration between diverse individuals produces better results. It helps us solve problems more effectively. Companies in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians. When leaders encourage a proliferation of perspectives and foster an environment where employees feel comfortable to speak up, their companies realize greater efficiencies and lower costs.
Companies with leaders who are actively engaged in and committed to increasing diversity recognize the important role it plays, and ensure that outstanding employees receive the sponsorship and professional development they need. And they don’t compromise standards. To the contrary, they ruthlessly cultivate meritocracies and ensure that the most talented people have equal access to opportunities.
During my tenure at Hewlett-Packard, the senior team and I would regularly examine all open positions above a certain level in the company. I insisted that there be a diversified and qualified set of candidates for every job, and we selected the best individual from there. By the end of my tenure, half of my direct reports were women. They rose on merit. But there’s another side to this story. Less than a year after I was fired and those practices were abandoned, 60 percent of those women were gone.
We must be purposeful about how to confront and overcome our biases so that we can foster a culture of collaboration, find common ground, and reach across our differences.
That sounds good, but what strategies can we deploy today to foster collaboration in our own teams and organizations? Collaboration requires humility and empathy—the humility to realize you cannot do everything alone and the empathy to truly see what others bring to the table.
The idea that a good leader is a humble leader is not new. Robert K. Greenleaf coined the term “servant leadership” nearly half a century ago, inspiring generations of leadership thinkers and writers.
Unfortunately, the idea is still radical in practice. While we read the books and understand the theories, we too often do not walk the walk. We have all seen colleagues rewarded and promoted even when they are arrogant, take credit for the work of others, and cut corners. Our teams or our boards sometimes push us to overlook these behaviors as long as the person is producing results.
Unfortunately, our popular culture of instant gratification, 15 minutes of fame, self-absorption, and self-indulgence reinforces this mentality.
Of course, understanding and developing humility is not easy. Humility is not insecurity, false modesty, or being overly tentative. It is not a “humble brag.” It is a recognition and acknowledgement that we do not have all the answers and that we cannot do everything by ourselves.
Take a personal inventory and check in with a trusted friend who gives good, honest feedback. Recognize and own what you know, and begin to confront what you do not know and what you cannot do. Also remember that understanding where and how you should spend your time is as important as understanding where and how you should not spend your time.
Humility starts with you, but it doesn’t end there. To build teams of humble, collaborative leaders, you have to reward the behavior you want to see. Do not reward, promote, or indulge colleagues who act badly—even if they are producing results for your bottom line. Do reward those who work well with their teammates, acknowledge the contributions of others, and honestly admit their faults and mistakes and do better next time.
Success requires that you make a proactive, conscious commitment to a culture of humility, and you should take steps to explicitly and implicitly reinforce those ideas for yourself and your team. That’s something you can do whether you are the CEO or the secretary.
Once we understand we cannot do it all alone, we can better see the potential in others, understand the possibilities within them, and recognize that we can achieve more when we work together. Practicing humility naturally leads us to develop and practice empathy.
Empathy is not sympathy or pity. It is identifying with what someone else is going through and has gone through—feeling what they are feeling, relating to them, and understanding their motivations.
To practice and encourage empathy, hire a diverse team. Once you have taken your personal inventory, identify the areas where you need help, and the experiences and traits that will round out your own. Demand that a qualified, diverse pool of candidates be considered for every role before you begin the interview process.
Get to know the people with whom you work. When you identify a problem, seek out people on your team and, without reservation or expectation, ask what they think. Set up formal processes that encourage collaboration across tenures and across departments.
Establish feedback and review procedures that meet people where they are, incorporating their reflections, experiences, and needs. That doesn’t mean lowering standards—in fact, it’s the opposite. By understanding where people are coming from, you can set even higher expectations that appropriately reflect the strengths of your leaders.
About six months into my tenure as a secretary, I didn’t have a glittering resume and I wasn’t thinking about my future. Two men at the company approached my desk and said: “We’ve been watching you, and we think you could do more than type and file. Do you want to learn about business?”
These men may have had big offices or fancy titles. I don’t remember. But what truly made them leaders was that they took the time to see possibilities in me. And so I came to see possibilities in myself.
In today’s world, we face problems that are desperate, festering, and intractable. If we are going to have any shot at solving these problems, we need more leaders. And we must understand what that means.
Leadership is not about title, position, or power. It’s about solving problems and unlocking the potential in those around us.