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Three Profiles in Organizational Humility

By Patrick Lencioni, President, The Table Group

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 egocentric 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.

The first of these organizations is none other than WalMart. Yes, WalMart. I spent a day last year at their headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, 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.

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 yessirs and nosirs 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.


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