Back in January, I posed a question around what the role of humility was in organizational transformation, especially when organizations are being disrupted at an exponential pace. Many of you replied, emailed or reached out to share your own experiences of how humility in leadership was an essential ingredient to reinvention. Several of you shared stories of how humility was glaringly absent in your own organizations, and a few of you emphasized how you saw leaders getting trapped in thinking incumbency leads to permanency, and acting with blinders on, making your organization more susceptible to disruption. On the other end of the spectrum, especially for some of you based in Asia, you cautioned about the over-use of humility, and how that must be balanced with positive self-belief, agency and courage to take a leap in the face of disruption. As with many things in life and business, it was a paradox to be managed. For all your insights, reflections, and stories, I am immensely grateful. 

While I was gathering your input, my colleague, Paul Kinsinger and I were working together to wrap up our interviews with 15 senior executives in legacy firms across 11 different companies in eight global industries, in dialogues about how they were preparing for disruption. Like you, we had noticed by working with many such companies and leaders dealing with disruptive forces and threats from outside their industries, that, in addition to boldness and fearlessness, there was also an important foundation of humility when it came to how they and their companies have been dealing with the complexity and exponential change presented by disruption. We began to call those legacy organizations and leaders that are managing to cope with these challenges “humble incumbents”. 

So, we reached out to our valued network, and connected with executives serving in six regions—the US, Europe, Asia-Pacific, South Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. Three were presidents or CEO’s; five were at the senior vice president level or members of the C-suite; two were vice presidents or general managers; two were country managers; and three were heads of global functions. All were in companies and industries facing disruption; some sooner than later; one has been helping to lead it. We sat down with these leaders and asked three questions:

1. What, in your mind are the attributes of a “humble incumbent” organization and its leaders?

2. What are the traps that such organizations can fall into as they try to navigate disruptive times?

3. What are the leadership mindsets and skillsets needed to lead an organization through disruption and forward into an exponential era?

In analyzing the data, together with Dr. Karen Walch and Dr. Andreas Schotter we found that the need for humility resonated clearly with all respondents and that furthermore, it undergirded our three main conclusions regarding how incumbents will fare as they try to prepare for the potential of disruption: 

1.    Incumbent companies go through five phases in preparing for disruption including (1) facing up to the challenges and opportunities, (2) committing to action, (3) executing through uncharted waters, (4) leading, engaging, and evolving the organizational culture, (5) and championing continuous learning.

2.    We discovered that there are also traps corresponding to each of the five phases. Organizations that prepare successfully will embrace humility and proactively spot and manage through the traps in reinventing themselves and their leadership.

3.    Long-standing success for legacy players carries with it an inevitable burden of a hardened self-concept resistant to seeing how exponential change and disruption could possibly compel a necessary reinvention. Yet organizations today can no longer avoid the impact of disruption, and in that space, we have found humility, when embedded in organizational and leadership practices, can ignite the necessary movement forward through the five stages of preparing for disruption. 

If you’d like to read more, click here for the full white paper. Would love to hear your thoughts and reflections. 

Next up, I am reaching out to leaders globally to understand more fully the mindsets and skillsets needed to lead legacy firms forward… Stay tuned for the next white paper, “What is Exponential Leadership?”