Here’s an exclamation point to my recent post on The Red-Flag Attitude about hubris and the toll it takes on successful people and organizations. It’s a short but powerful article by Chicago Tribune columnist Phil Rosenthal. He starts with a powerful example from the private sector, but everything he writes applies equally well in the nonprofit world. The more successful you are, the more you should find a minute to read this: Hubris strikes again.
One of my favorite quotes is this one by Suzuki: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” When an organization and its staff members become experts in the organization’s field, there is a big danger of what I call the Red-Flag Attitude. This is an attitude that can take over the culture of a successful organization and should serve as a major red flag to any organization’s leadership. You will recognize it when you start hearing the following themes in the conversations in staff meetings, around the office, and especially in your own head. Such comments go something like this:
“Our program is so much better than our competitors’.”
“Our clients are so lucky to have us delivering this service.”
“They (the competition or the clients) just don’t get it.”
“We’re so smart and they are clueless.”
The attitude, of course, is arrogance (or hubris), and once your group has it, you may be headed for serious trouble. You will become blind to new developments that could affect your success and to the weaknesses in your programs or services. You will look only at data that supports your position and ignore data that might point out your weaknesses. You will begin resting on your laurels and stop analyzing and improving what made you successful in the first place. Or, as Suzuki would say, you will limit your own possibilities.
In his book How the Mighty Fall, Jim Collins lists the hubris born of success as Stage 1 in the 5 stages of organizational decline. I highly recommend that all nonprofit organizations, and especially the successful ones, become familiar with this book.
Because organizational culture is usually determined and nurtured by the leader, the solution to the problem will begin with you. A good place to start is by examining your own attitudes and motivations carefully and if you see the red flag, sharing your insights with your staff. Then figure out ways to reward staffers who always keep a “beginner’s mind.”
When I directed the Presidents’ Leadership Institute, I always told my students that in addition to my real-life, on-the-job training, everything I knew about leadership I learned from two sources — Outward Bound, the outdoor leadership school, and Jim Collins, the renowned author and scholar. I’ll talk about Outward Bound in a later post and devote this one to Jim Collins.
Jim Collins is one of the most brilliant and passionate men I have ever had the privilege to meet. He is a business scholar who has worked to answer questions about why some businesses are good and others are great. But his ideas are not just business ideas, they are “greatness” ideas. He has identified the characteristics of “greatness” cultures in organizations of all types, and the leading characteristic of great organizations is discipline. It is not luck; it is not even vision. It is the discipline of focus, humility and hard work.
On this website I’m not going to recommend a lot of reading materials—only a few that I think are absolutely not to be missed. In this spirit I highly recommend that you read all of Jim Collin’s books, but start by reading Good to Great and the accompanying monograph Good to Great and the Social Sectors. These books were invaluable to me as I honed my nonprofit leadership skills. You will see the ideas from these books in many of the posts that will follow.