Big ego, small ego: Google’s Laszlo Bock talks humility in the workplace

Just about anyone who writes about the workplace can agree that American companies are facing a serious leadership void.

In a recent survey, nearly 70 percent of employees reported not liking their jobs.

Why? My guess is—most of them have bosses who are just lousy at their jobs. It could be that these leaders are:

  • Excellent at demotivating but not so good at motivating
  • Micromanagers
  • Unskilled at delegating
  • Indecisive
  • Unscrupulous
  • Cowardly
  • Arrogant

… or possesses some other negative personal quality (or three).

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If you’re someone who holds the worldview that people generally don’t want to work and must be persuaded by firm management, then you probably won’t agree with the above assessment.

However, if you hold to the view that people generally do want to work, then you have to ask yourself why so many hate it.

As for me, the answer is pretty obvious.

One solution to the problem

In “How to Get a Job at Google,” Laszlo Bock, the Senior Vice president of People Operations for Google, talks about filling the leadership void but not in the customary way. (Naturally. This is Google, after all).

Bock says that Google looks at five qualities when hiring, and one is what he calls “emergent leadership,” which is not to be confused with traditional leadership. In Bock’s own words:

“Traditional leadership is, were you president of the chess club? Were you vice president of sales? How quickly did you get there? We don’t care. What we care about is, when faced with a problem and you’re a member of a team, do you, at the appropriate time, step in and lead. And just as critically, do you step back and stop leading, do you let someone else? Because what’s critical to be an effective leader in this environment is you have to be willing to relinquish power.”

Google also looks for people who are curious, intellectually humble, and passionate in their ideas yet willing to change position if the facts warrant. This willingness (as well as the willingness to relinquish control) is evidence of the “big ego, small ego” Bock says makes for great leaders.

The takeaway

Traits, and not technical competency, will make or break a leader every time, and that’s an excellent reason for companies to hire with a focus on who employees are rather than what they can do at any given moment in time.

It’s not that technical know-how isn’t important—of course it is. But great leaders can manage teams of people who do things the leader has never done and has no expertise in at all, because his or her personal traits inspire others to perform.

Finally, chief among the desired personal traits of an effective leader is humility, which tempers a healthy ego and opens a leader to new ideas and new and better ways of doing things.

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