Harvard Business Review recently issued its 2017 "Best Performing CEOs in the World" list. Rankings of the best CEOs are created based on a bevy of financial, environmental, social, and governance metrics. While all ranking lists have at least some subjectivity to them, this one seems particularly well reasoned.

The curious part about this list is what mega-performing CEO is at the very top of it.

His name is Pablo Isla, CEO of  Inditex, the parent company for retail fashion chain and mall staples like Zara and Pull & Bear (outlets I have no experience shopping in, although I could tell you a bit about Costco fashion).

During Isla's 12-year run, his company has increased in market value seven times over, engaged in global expansion at a rate of on average one new store opening a day, and has become Spain's most valuable company. Impressive by anyone's standards. 

But what stands out is the single word description employees use to convey Isla's management style.

Humble.

And I hardly think it's a coincidence that the top performing CEO in the world has this style of leadership.

Let me first say that, of course, it's not just his humility that drove him to the top of the heap. Isla has chosen winning strategies like integrating the online and in-store shopping experience to feel seamless and focusing on the ability to quickly react to fashion trends with an integrated supply chain.

But it's how his employees talk about him and how he talks of his approach that's the most telling.

Isla is known for rejecting a meeting culture and the use of hierarchy to command, control, and ego-feed, instead favoring making decisions informally in partnership with his people as he "manages by walking around". 

Isla is so notoriously shy of being in the spotlight that he doesn't go to his own store openings. Isla described his approach to HBR:

"What we want to be relevant is the company or the store opening, and everything always is the result of the work of a team of people. The strength of our company is the combination of everybody, much more than of any single person. And I can tell you that as a company, we try to be a low-profile company, being humble, of course being very ambitious, but being humble. And if we have a big store opening, we want the store to be the relevant thing, and not any particular person."

Sagely, Isla focuses on putting the spotlight on what is most relevant to the consumer. The core shopper lusting for a $50 pair of affordable but high-fashion high heels from Zara wants to hear about the new store in her neighborhood, not about how in control some privileged executive is. 

And he puts the spotlight on the most relevant employees--the front line store managers who are empowered to make product selections and whom he supports via a robust promote from within policy. 

So there is something to this humility trait and the corresponding results behind it.

But the words humility and humble are thrown around a lot. What does it really mean to act with humility? Here are four discerning characteristics that determine if a leader is acting with humility (according to emotional and social intelligence expert Dr. Karl Albrecht):

1. You don't have an impulse to outdo others or feel like you have to protect perceived threats to your sense of self. 

As Albrecht says, "You learn to simply disconnect or de-program the competitive reflex in situations where it's not productive."

2. You don't put yourself above or below others--you treat all as equals.

This is an important distinction. It's often assumed that humility means you put yourself beneath others. But walking beside everyone is much more powerful than walking behind them. 

3. You react from purpose, not emotion.

When you check your ego at the door, you check unhelpful emotions there as well. You're freer to operate from a sense of purpose and desire to serve your fellow worker.

4. You understand that humility is less a matter of self-restraint and more a matter of self-esteem.

The greater your sense of self-worth, the easier it is to appreciate others, to praise them, and to encourage them.

As a result of all of this, you draw people to you as a leader, "inviting people to move with and toward you, instead of away and against you." And you are much more likely to draw astounding results too.

Published on: Dec 13, 2017