How CEOs Can Master the Art of Balancing Courage and Humility

Facing the external environment, choosing and formulating the right goals and strategies is a challenge that every CEO and executive team must confront.

In the process of choosing and formulating, actions such as how to collect information, how to analyze and assess, how to deliberate, and how to make decisions require both expertise and discipline. However, behind these professional and disciplined actions lies a more fundamental element: the “mindset” of the CEO (and the executive team). Specifically, it’s whether the CEO (and the executive team) can “balance courage and humility.”

For companies led directly by the founder in the CEO role, this element is not only more fundamental but also often critical. A period of imbalance in the mindset of the founder and CEO, which is a balance between courage and humility, can lead to several years of strategic passivity for the company.

How do you distinguish the balanced state of “courage and humility”?

We can categorize it into five states: 1) Excessive humility; 2) Sufficient humility, insufficient courage; 3) Balanced courage and humility; 4) Excessive courage, insufficient humility; 5) Excessive courage.

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What can lead to an imbalance between courage and humility?

There are many non-professional and non-technical factors.

For example, comparison. If the neighbor Mr. Wang is growing so big and so fast, why can’t I? Another example is when the CEO is surrounded by filtered information and receives widespread praise from subordinates. Originally, they may not have been that confident, but now they feel that lacking confidence is unacceptable in this era. Factors like these can easily lead to “excessive courage, insufficient humility.”

Many factors that lead to “excessive humility, insufficient courage” are also non-professional or non-technical.

For example, the CEO’s most trusted and closest high-level executives may have limited perspectives and vision. Another example is when the company’s governance situation leads the CEO to prioritize interpersonal relationships far more than the company’s development. They would rather not grow than harm relationships.

Please note that the majority of individuals will not experience “excessive humility” or “excessive courage,” as those conditions are quite extreme. Therefore, self-cultivation and self-awareness are more practically useful for addressing “excessive humility” and “excessive courage.”

When using these two states as descriptions to evaluate the CEO and the executive team, if you find many applicable behavioral descriptions (e.g., a high frequency of behaviors indicating “excessive courage, insufficient humility”), it’s time to be cautious.

Keep in mind that the behavioral descriptions in “excessive humility, insufficient courage” are counterparts to those in “excessive courage, insufficient humility.” You should make an overall judgment, assessing which side they lean toward rather than saying they have a bit of both. In practice, it’s possible to have a bit of both, such as being somewhat reckless in certain situations and overly cautious in others. However, you still need to make an overall directional choice. (Note: Some people might describe the relationship between these two states as more like the yin and yang of Tai Chi, where there’s a bit of one within the other. This description might be more accurate but can lead to relativism and might not be conducive to sparking thought and action.)

Sometimes, it may appear that some CEOs (and executive teams) exhibit behaviors that seem to represent a “balance of courage and humility” (e.g., they appear to have a calm demeanor), but this balance is based on a low level of both courage and humility. This type of balance is not what we advocate and promote.

Additionally, when we use the term “balance,” we must acknowledge that all balances are dynamic. For example, it’s relatively easier for a founder to achieve a “balance of courage and humility” when the company is small. However, as the company grows and goes public, and the individual is widely seen as successful, maintaining that balance becomes more challenging. Similarly, achieving balance is easier when one is doing what they are good at, but it can be challenging when entering a new field.

The key takeaway is that achieving and maintaining a dynamic balance between courage and humility is an ongoing process, and it can vary depending on circumstances and stages of personal or organizational development.

This also means that in order to achieve a higher level of balance, one must periodically disrupt the existing balance. This can result in individuals temporarily experiencing states of “excessive courage and insufficient humility” or “excessive humility and insufficient courage.” In these relatively unbalanced states, individuals receive feedback from the external world, their abilities improve, and they gradually transition to the next, more balanced state.

It can be said that having the courage to disrupt the existing balance also requires a “balance of courage and humility.” Those CEOs (and executive teams) who are unwilling to break the current balance are, in fact, already “excessively humble and insufficiently courageous.”

In essence, the ability of a CEO (and executive team) to dynamically balance courage and humility serves as the foundation and prerequisite for a company’s strategic capability. If there are issues in this aspect, it becomes challenging to rectify them through other professional or technical actions related to strategic management. An executive team that can dynamically maintain a balance between courage and humility has the potential to become a “truly effective executive team.”

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