How Arrogant Are You?
“I don’t tell people I’m the company’s co-founder. I say I work there. Then, if they ask, I say I work on the business side, and then if they ask further, I say I’m the CEO.”
–Slava Rubin, Co-founder of crowdfunding platform Indiegogo, to FORTUNE Magazine
I recently circulated this quote on my Sibuxiang weibo. It comes from a highly successful American entrepreneur who was speaking to a writer from FORTUNE Magazine.
Among the feedback I received was an interesting question from one young Chinese fan : “Why?” In other words, why would the CEO of a very successful company display this kind of attitude?
I think it’s a question worth examining. Rubin makes a very revealing statement about one aspect of his leadership style as CEO. It is obviously rooted in an American cultural context, but it is interesting to consider whether it is a quality which can cross over different cultures effectively. I happen to think that it can and does.
If you imagine a spectrum of values with arrogance at one end and humility at the other, Rubin’s statement reflects the opposite end of the spectrum from arrogance .
It shows that he strongly identifies as an equal with the rest of his colleagues, to an extent that both internally and externally, he is reluctant to bask in the glory of being the boss. My weibo fan, quite rightly, asks “Why”?
I don’t know Rubin, but I have dealt with a lot of CEOs and other organizational leaders, and it strikes me that humility is not an uncommon trait, especially outside of Asian societies which tend to have deeply-rooted, weighty hierarchical traditions.
Among Chinese CEOs that I’ve met, some of the notably successful ones are also relatively humble in their style of interaction with others. Frankly, especially among larger company CEOs, that’s fairly unusual . Chinese culture tends to treat leaders with an enormously high degree of deference and respect, and quite a few big company CEOs project an image not unlike the emperors of olden days .
When I first came to China in the mid-1970s, there were no CEOs. Chinese companies were not really companies, but government departments; and private enterprises were taboo. Everyone dressed the same, looked the same, and didn’t even carry business cards. International company CEOs, with very few exceptions (mainly smaller companies), didn’t visit China yet because it was considered a marginal, pre-emerging market.
So, along with a lot of other things, the development of the leadership style of Chinese CEOs is actually a very recent phenomenon. China’s State-owned Enterprises enjoy a fair degree of controversy these days. One thing about the leaders of the biggest SOEs is that they have management experience in a wider range of organizations than most international company CEOs. Many have done stints as provincial, municipal, and central government leaders, either on the government or party side, or both.
In many respects, this is a strength, although it tends not to produce leaders with a humble style of interaction with internal and external communities. To some extent, these leaders are by necessity following a script on style and substance, as compared with their counterparts in China’s fast-growing non-State sector. Being accessible to stakeholders at a lower level, or those external to their organization, is not necessarily something they are accustomed to or experienced with.
Entrepreneurs face myriad choices on the road to building their companies. Some of these relate to what kind of leader they want to be, including the question of where on the spectrum of “arrogance versus humility” they want to place their leadership style.
This is not just a reflection of one’s personality, although that clearly has an important bearing.
So, back to my weibo fan’s question: “Why? ”
I can’t answer for Mr. Rubin, but I can outline some of the benefits that leaders enjoy when they choose a leadership style closer to his than to the emperor’s.
For an organization to be effective, bad news must travel up, alerting top leadership to looming problems and emerging crises. This is commonly not a strength of Chinese companies, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, arrogance at the top discourages managers from passing bad news up. Accountability among managers is a part of the problem, but so is fear of reprisal.
Another strength of effective organizations is teamwork. A culture of teamwork is essential to innovation, problem-solving, and managing organizational change. Although achieving this depends on much more than just the leadership style of the CEO, it’s a lot easier to achieve when the top dog considers himself or herself to be cut from the same cloth as all the other colleagues.
Humility tends to make leaders more approachable and better listeners. If you’re seeking to create a company where outstanding customer service is essential, a corporate culture of approachability is important. It helps if this starts with the CEO, as a role model.
More often than not, humility is a choice. Arrogance is a default position often based on insecurity, or on following perceived norms of behavior within a societal set.
Arrogance tends to build pedestals and walls. Humility builds bridges and channels.
The interesting thing is that humble leaders are not only more pleasant to work with, but they build enterprises which tend to be more successful and profitable on a sustained basis, even after they move on.
Are their exceptions to this? Sure. Can I prove this assertion empirically? Nope. Just my two cents’ worth based on forty years’ wandering around observing with eyes and ears open.
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