The Silicon Valley Voice

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Humble Pie, Sweetie Pie


I’m not very good at my job. My judgment is horrible, and I make lots of mistakes. Most of the time, I really don’t know what I’m doing.

So, am I hired?

You bet! If I am looking for a high-level gig as a high-paid CEO, the attributes described above would virtually guarantee that I’d have the job.


Why? Because I’m humble.

That’s right! To better your chances of promotion in the upper echelons of management, you’d better make a lot of mistakes. Yes, it’s actually an advantage to be an incompetent doofus, just as long as you are prepared to admit your failures. Or embellish them. (If you do happen to be that rara avis, the competent executive, you’d better button it if you expect to be hired.)

If all this seems counterintuitive to you, Hugh, may I draw your attention to “The Case for Humble Executives,” a Joann S. Lublin column in The Wall Street Journal. As Lublin pithily puts it, “leaders with humility listen well, admit errors and are willing to share the limelight.”

If you don’t know any top managers who listen, admit and share, meet A.G. Lafley. Lafley is the ex-CEO of Proctor & Gamble, a leader who “struck a humble tone during last week’s annual shareholders meeting”. Taking the blame for the consumer products company’s weak performance, “the departing CEO told investors ‘the buck stops with me’ and assured them that his successor would do better.”

Do what better, you might ask. To which I answer – make better apologies. Lafley was pretty darn humble, I have to admit, but a truly apologetic P&G CEO would have ended his career by putting on a pair of adult Pampers, filling his pockets with tubes of Crest, and diving into a vat of Tide.

When it comes to wanting executives who want to apologize, P&G is not alone. “Among executives, humility ‘is the favor du jour,'” says Fred Hassan, a former CEO and author. Executive recruiter Dale E. Jones agrees, adding that the highly desirable humble hire is critical to “the servant leadership model.”

Now, you’ve always known there was a servant role in your relationship with your manager; you probably didn’t know that the servant with supposed to be the boss.

One company definitely in the race to implement “humble service leadership,” according to Lublin, is Krispy Kreme Doughnuts Inc. Their search for an executive willing to exchange his Prada wardrobe for sack cloth and ashes concluded with the hire of Anthony “Tony” N. Thompson. Apparently, Mr. Thompson personifies the humility that represents “an important trait in our company.” And, I predict, he will have plenty of opportunities to show that vaunted humility. Have you ever had a Krispy Kreme glazed donut, made extra-yummy with ethoxylated diglycerides, monocalcium and dicalcium phosphate, diammonium phosphate, and sodium stearoyl-2-lacrylate?

I can’t wait to hear the apology for these nutritional boo-boos, but it will have to wait until I get back from the emergency room.

At this point, you’re probably thinking – yes, humble is good, but how can I be humble when I’m perfect? This is a problem. And if you’re thinking of putting on a humble act, you should know that the research of Harvard professor Francesca Gino shows that “faux humility annoys people.”

Fortunately, if you do want to hop on the humbleness bandwagon, I can help. For example, you could be humble about how you’re not humble. “I do wish I did something wrong every once in a while so I could apologize for it,” you say. “I apologize for not having anything to apologize for.”

Try it. Tears over your incompetence are already welling up my eyes.

Sad to say, there are risks to the new humbleness. Oscar Munoz, the new chief of United Continental Holdings Inc., “started his tenure with an apology to customers and employees and a vow to spend his first 90 days on a listening tour with staff.” In the midst of this tour, Munoz had a serious heart attack.

I’m sure there was a sound medical reason for the unfortunate attack, but one does have to wonder if a contributing factor was what Munoz heard when he listened to air travelers talk about the absolute hell of flying today. Maybe the endless apologies he had to spit out from morning to night weakened his spirit. Or it could have been something much simpler.

Maybe he booked his United Airlines apology tour on United Airlines.

Bob Goldman was an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company, but he finally wised up and opened Bob Goldman Financial Planning in Sausalito, California. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at


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