The longer I’m in the business world the more I treasure the rare and refreshing virtue of humility.
We’re all imperfect people, and marketing is an imperfect business where subjective decisions rule the day—unlike science, engineering and even accounting, there are no tenets of physics, mathematics or even generally accepted accounting principles that can definitively determine whether something is right or wrong, true or false, or will or will not work. It’s funny how we all believe that we know what “great” advertising is, yet all it takes is a night in front of the television, a short drive through the billboard jungle or an hour navigating the web to admit that very little great (read: creative and effective) work is actually borne from all of our efforts.
Despite that, certitude bordering on arrogance often rears its ugly head, and it can come from either side of the client-agency relationship. Whether it arises from fear, insecurity or self-deception, clients that lack humility become reflexive and dictatorial; agencies that lack humility get fired. In either case, everyone loses.
That’s not to say that confidence isn’t vital. We have to genuinely believe in what we’re doing in order not to lose our souls. But there’s a clear line of demarcation between confidence and arrogance, and that distinction, I believe, is humility. It’s the ability—a healthy tendency, in fact—to say “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure”. It’s a risky thing to admit, at least in the short term, because it complicates our lives. But as with many things, there’s a dichotomy to humility. Admitting we don’t know it all is the surest route to improvement, while believing in our own brilliance mires us in the status quo.
Perhaps one reason great work is the exception is that decisions get made from positions of power, and power tends to breed arrogance. It’s the rare corporate leader, marketing manager, creative director or account supervisor who has the confidence to be humble. But when a business relationship is marked by mutual humility, when both parties are willing to say “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure”, there’s an incredible dynamic at play: People who share the same goals and a common humility lock arms to defeat the enemy of uncertainty and together find a path to success.
Over the course of nearly thirty years in business, I’ve experienced both kinds of relationships. Those marked by humility tend to be long-lasting, creative, rewarding and satisfying. Those marked by arrogance tend to be “nasty, brutish and short.” It would be nice to know which kind I’m getting into before I do, but that’s not always possible. What is possible is to ensure that those with whom I do business never wonder what they’re getting from me. I’m as far from that as the next guy, but it’s one of the few things I’m increasingly convinced is worth pursuing.
Steve McKee is a BusinessWeek.com columnist, marketing consultant, and author of “When Growth Stalls: How it Happens, Why You’re Stuck, and What To Do About It.” Learn more about him at www.WhenGrowthStalls.com and at https://twitter.com/stevemckee.