In 1954 J.W. “Bill” Marriott Sr., the founder of the Marriott Hotel chain, invited then U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower to hunt quail on his family farm in Virginia. It was a cold, rainy day, with driving winds and freezing sleet.
The group – which included Bill Sr.; President Eisenhower; a cabinet member; and Bill Sr.’s son, J.W. “Bill” Marriott Jr. – gathered around the sitting room fireplace to decide whether or not to venture out in the harsh elements. At the time, Bill Jr., the youngest in the group, was a 22-year-old Navy ensign. After some discussion, President Eisenhower turned to Bill Jr. and asked, “What do you think?”
Undaunted, Bill Jr. suggested they stay inside and enjoy the fire. But the encounter stuck with him. The fact the most powerful person in the world asked for his opinion inculcated the importance of hearing varied views and gaining consensus.
As Bill’s daughter, Debbie Marriott Harrison, told me, he always considered Eisenhower’s simple question to be the four most important words in leadership: What do you think?
The story of President Eisenhower and Bill Marriott Jr. has been told many times before, but it’s worth repeating. Through assessing tens of thousands of leader surveys and interviewing hundreds of C-suite executives, my colleagues at Potential Project and I have discovered that this simple question embodies three imperatives of exceptional leadership: break the leadership bubble, show true humility, and see others as equals.
Break the Leadership Bubble
A significant challenge for many senior leaders is that the higher they rise, the more insulated they become. In other words, they get trapped in a bubble. Subordinates tend to become overly compliant, telling them what they want to hear. And once candid conversations are now not so candid.
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By explicitly asking others, “What do you think?” leaders can break free of this bubble. They can get the feedback needed to improve thinking and gain the benefits of divergent perspectives. Still, breaking free of the leadership bubble can be difficult – it takes true humility.
Show True Humility
“He’s the epitome of humility,” Debbie said in describing her father, Bill Marriott Jr. The importance of this leadership trait corresponds with our research. In talking with hundreds of executives, we’ve found that great leaders are generally not the types of people who trumpet their accomplishments or overvalue their own contributions.
Instead, great leaders exude a sense of humility. Humility is not just a noble attitude; it’s a realistic sense of self-importance. As Debbie pointed out, there was a sign on President Ronald Reagan’s desk that read, “There is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don’t care who takes the credit.” If the end goal is to succeed as a team, leaders need to give other smart, ambitious people a legitimate opportunity to contribute. Doing so, though, requires seeing others as equals.
See Others as Equals
As President Eisenhower innately understood in asking for the opinion of a 22-year-old Navy ensign, a core element of exceptional leadership includes the ability to see others as equals. It’s the realization that we’re alike in our desire to succeed, find purpose, and be happy. This includes an awareness that we all have different opinions, perspectives, and levels of expertise that should be valued.
Seeing others this way helps support diversity and inclusion and puts the organization’s needs before personal preferences. It allows leaders to seek common ground and be open to constructive collaboration.
Humility, equality, inclusion? This is all starting to sound a bit soft and squishy.
Theory – or Science?
Alex “Sandy” Pentland, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Human Dynamics Laboratory, is the inventor of data-gathering badges that record a type of human statistic called “sociometrics.” This is a measure of how people interact, including things like what tone of voice they use, how much they gesture, and how much they listen or interrupt.
Pentland has been equipping people in banks, universities, call centers, and other businesses with these sensor-packed badges. In all these settings, Pentland has discovered that the best team leaders – what he calls “natural leaders” – are democratic with their time, communicating with everyone equally and making sure all team members get a chance to speak and contribute.
In other words, according to the hard data, the most effective leaders are inherently asking everyone in the room, “What do you think?”
The Bottom Line
Following Eisenhower and Bill Marriott Jr.’s example doesn’t mean there’s no place in leadership for status and hierarchy. Sometimes tough decisions need to be made. Sometimes levers need to be pulled and difficult reforms put into action. But this power should be used sparingly.
By breaking the leadership bubble, showing humility, and seeing others as equals, leaders can create a safe space for creativity and collaboration. They can make better decisions by avoiding biases and tapping into situated or specialized knowledge. Most important, they can enable their people to grow, to thrive, and to do meaningful work.