When Barcelona Captain Carles Puyol passed on the captain’s arm band to defender Eric Abidal so that the latter lifts the Champions League trophy, the moment turned memorable. In March, Abidal had undergone a surgery for a liver tumor and every football fan understood that Puyol’s gesture was as much about bonding as about humility.

In the recent times, Indian sports lovers would also recall a similar instance when the captain let his team mate corner the limelight. After India’s 2011 World Cup victory, captain MS Dhoni preferred to take the back seat as the team went around the ground with Sachin Tendulkar, for whom it was perhaps the last cup, on their shoulders. In each of his triumphs as a captain, winning the T20 World Cup in 2007, the back to back IPL wins for Chennai Super Kings, that’s been the mark of the man. As always, Dhoni preferred the soft glow of the penumbra, not the glare of the spotlight.

For those familiar with the business management theories, the act of shunning the spotlight by Puyol and Dhoni are perfect examples of the “humble” leadership approach. What was occasionally happening  in the corporate boardrooms is now taking place on the football and cricket pitches, for all to behold. They are perhaps the new management case studies.

One of the theory’s foremost proponents is management consultant Jim Collins, author of two much quoted works, “How the Mighty Fall” (2009) and “Good to Great” (2001). “The key ingredient that allows a company to become great is having a Level 5 leader: an executive in whom genuine personal humility blends with intense professional will” he wrote in Harvard Business Review.

The “humble leaders” are a sharp counterpoint to the Lee Iacocca and Jack Welsh school of leadership. For the former, the “I” is secondary to the “we” or “us”. Social scientist Shiv Viswanathan calls it a “collective understanding of creativity.”. He says that such leadership style recognizes and appreciates “the smaller actors in a victory” who contribute in minor but meaningful ways in a major team triumph. But it isn’t easy being a Dhoni or a Puyol. Adman and social commentator Santosh Desai believes that such acts require supreme self-confidence and wisdom. “Such gestures of humility also build your longevity as a leader. You get more latitude during bad times.”

Which is why authors and thought leaders Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman advise in “The Handbook for Leaders”, “Don’t flaunt your authority. Humility will make you approachable. It opens the door to building relationships.” In his well-researched work, Jim Collins also details the case of Darwin E Smith, who metamorphosed Kimberley-Clark into a leading paper products company in the 1970s and 1980s. Reticent and unassuming, Smith is said to have avoided attention. He grew up on a farm, went to night school at Indiana University and also worked in the daytime.

One day he lost a finger at work. “The story goes that he went to class that evening and returned to work the next day. Eventually, this poor but determined Indiana farm boy earned admission to Harvard Law School…. Smith is a classic example of a Level 5 leader, an individual who blends extreme personal humility with intense professional will.” writes Collins.

This is an article built upon a similar article that I read in the Times by Avijit Ghosh.

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