Be Humble When You're Changing the World
This is a column about the universe, the cofounder of AOL, the World War II movie, Band of Brothers. It's also a column about a key component of entrepreneurial leadership, humility. Bear with me, it will all make sense soon enough.
In the waning days of our honeymoon, my wife and I recently trekked to the top of Mauna Kea, a 13,803-foot mountain on the Big Island of Hawaii. Besides being one of the few places in Hawaii where a winter coat and hat come in handy, it also happens to be one of the best places to gaze up at stars.
I was also drawn to Mauna Kea after reading that scientists estimate there are about 70 sextillion stars in the known universe. (Another study suggests that number is lower, at 300 sextillion.)
A sextillion is a 1 with 21 zeroes, so there's no good way to wrap our arms around those numbers other than, by way of comparison, to point out there are about 7 billion living humans. Even at the lower estimate of 70 sextillion, that's 1 trillion stars for each person.
Lessons in Humility
It's a humbling thought, which led me to think of two people: AOL co-founder and venture capitalist Steve Case, and the late Maj. Dick Winters, who led the World War II airborne infantry company made famous in the book and film, Band of Brothers.
In a recent interview, Case surprised me when he said the wrong way to pitch a business idea was to lack humility. Likewise, Winters' book preaches the importance of humility in leadership: "If you don't worry about who gets the credit, you get a lot more done," wrote the citizen soldier who led a fierce fight in Normandy. "Leaders should assume blame when the operation fails; when it succeeds, credit the men and women in your team. They do the lion's share of the work."
What About Big Ideas?
Humility is a logical feeling when confronted by the scope of the universe. But how on Earth can one accomplish big goals while maintaining, as the dictionary puts it, "a modest or low view of one's importance"?
The answer lies in the balance. Having mulled it all over while admiring one of the most beautiful sights on the planet, here's what I came up with.
Humility Means Respecting Your Team
If you don't respect the members of your team, you'd probably both be better off if they weren't part of it. Of course that means respecting their contributions and their individuality, but it also means respecting them by leading effectively. You need not only a worthwhile goal, but also a plan to get there--otherwise, your people deserve better.
Humility Means Respecting Your Customers
On a related note, humility requires respecting--and listening to--the people whose problems you seek to solve. As Jon Burgstone and I wrote in Breakthrough Entrepreneurship, a worthwhile entrepreneurial venture must "solve an important customer problem and in some small way, improve the world." How you can identify those important customer problems without respecting and listening to your customers?
Humility Means Being Daring
Start the world's biggest Internet company? That's a worthwhile goal. Defeat the Nazis and liberate Europe? Obviously a mighty and worthwhile challenge. It's not surprising that one component of successful entrepreneurship has something in common with leadership in all fields: Pick a problem worth solving and an objective worth your efforts.
One could probably write a doctoral dissertation in philosophy on this paradox. But if you want to practice true humility, you have to reach for the stars. Fortunately, you've got at least 70 sextillion to choose from.
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BILL MURPHY JR. | Columnist
Bill Murphy Jr. is a journalist, ghostwriter, and entrepreneur. He is the author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship (with Jon Burgstone) and is a former reporter for The Washington Post.