August Turak

Author Consultant Speaker

Top 5 Ways to Cultivate Successful Character Traits

Years ago I was interviewing with a tough, no nonsense, all business CEO. At the end he called in his head of human resources and tartly said, “Scrub his references.” Then he turned to me, “Listen, I don’t want a bunch of your friends. I only want people you worked for or with.”

“We have a problem.” I replied. “Everyone I’ve ever worked with are my friends.”

In this video, The Three Key Traits that Will Get You Hired,Mike Bormant, the CEO of Blue Coats Systems, surprisingly argues that humility is the single most important attribute that a leader must have. While modestly admitting that most of us might find his priorities “atypical,” I was extremely impressed and pleasantly surprised.

As an example of humility in action, Bormant cites the benefits of sharing credit; something I also advocated in a previous post. But besides sharing credit, there are several other ways that humility is critical to success.

It is axiomatic that making friends or “networking” is essential in business. But what is seldom mentioned is that success also depends on making as few enemies as possible. Humble people are free of envy and genuinely happy to see others succeed. These traits not only make us friends but keep our enemies to a minimum.

It is also a sad fact of human nature that most of us are insecure and easily threatened. When we genuinely and humbly demonstrate that we are team players we accrue the most powerful and potentially limitless business capital there is: trust. Warren Buffet has turned self deprecating humility and the trust it engenders into one of the most powerful personal brands in the world: A brand that has afforded him countless business opportunities he would not have had otherwise. He has been able to buy many companies at a “Buffet Discount” because their owners eagerly trade money for trust.

Third, humble people show vulnerability. One of the biggest mistakes we make in both our business and personal lives is thinking that the world prefers perfection to vulnerability. When we try to hide our vulnerabilities under a patina of perfection we rarely fool anyone; others may even take our attempts to fool them as condescending and an insult to their intelligence. At best our pretense to perfection may produce respect, but vulnerability produces empathy and empathy leads to love. And while lovability is no substitute for competence, we will do almost anything for those we love.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, humble people are coachable. Humble people don’t hide mistakes; they take criticism well; and are always trying to learn. When I look back at my own career, it was my coachability that paid the greatest dividends. I repeatedly traded money, power, and stars on my resume for the chance to work for mentors that could help me reach my full potential. In the short run this meant sacrifices, but in the long run it worked out almost magically.

Louis R. Mobley, my mentor and founder of the IBM Executive School, endlessly repeated that values, attitudes, and character traits are far more critical to success than skills and knowledge. Unfortunately fifty years on, our MBA schools and leadership programs have still not internalized this simple truth. After all, when was the last time you saw a course called Humility 101? More importantly would you take it if you did?

Humility is not a skill that can be learned. It is a character trait that must be cultivated. We don’t learn humility webecome humble people.

Ironically authentic humility depends on one of the other traits that Bormant advocates in this interview; “infinite self confidence.” A strong ego is not the opposite of humility. A strong and secure ego is essential to authentic humility. It takes an enormous amount of security, courage, and self respect to show vulnerability, to share credit, and to transcend envy and jealousy. It takes fearless self confidence to take the risk that our humility will be mistaken for diffidence or a deficiency in competitive fire. And only healthy egos focus on what is essential to success without constantly wondering what the other guy is doing or how much money he is making.

I remember a super successful businessman describing the turning point in his life. In his early thirties and frustrated by the slow pace of his career, he asked an executive he admired for some advice. The first thing the man said was, “What is your plan for personal development?”

He suddenly realized that besides showing up for work every day he had no plan. But as a result of this encounter he created a plan; a plan to acquire character traits like humility, patience, determination, openness, and integrity.

The difference between a dream and a goal is a plan, and the one thing that Warren Buffet, John Adams, Leo Tolstoy, Plato, and Abraham Lincoln all shared was a well defined plan for personal development. If you don’t have a plan for personal development start today, and if you do have one redouble your efforts. I can guarantee only a challenging and humbling journey into self knowledge for your efforts, but then again isn’t that Mike Bormant’s point?