In Praise of The Humble Leader

By Valerie Fulton Posted March 9, 2020

 

Dan Cable, author of Alive at Work, points out in his article for the Harvard Business Review that leaders "are merely overhead unless [they're] bringing out the best in [their] employees." He goes on to explain that when a leader is interested in having power over others in the workplace, employees are motivated by fear rather than a desire to learn and grow. You run the risk of winding up with a stagnant workforce, where employees aren't meeting outcomes, and everyone is afraid of speaking their mind.

The most effective leadership model, Cable argues, is "servant-leadership." A servant-leader doesn't advocate top-down decisions. Instead, they make employees feel purposeful and motivated because they have enough humility to admit that they "can benefit from the expertise of [those] who have less power than them."

Humble leaders create a culture of learning and mutual respect, which in turn boosts productivity. By encouraging everyone at the table to give input, they also ensure that the company is open to innovation. This leadership style can benefit everyone in your workplace.

What Humble Leadership Means...and Doesn't Mean

A common misconception is that humble leaders are weak — i.e., subservient. People who think this way are probably used to a model of authoritarian leadership, where decisions stem from the person in charge, and employees are not expected to question their directives.

In reality, though, the defining characteristic of authoritarian leadership isn't strength. It's a rigidity borne out of fear of losing control. When change threatens an authoritarian leader's position, they will often dig in their heels, even if that leads to failure. Ultimately, fear is what motivates this leadership style.

Humility, on the other hand, takes true strength of character. It is closely associated with a cluster of positive qualities including modesty, sincerity, fairness, authenticity, truthfulness, and unpretentiousness.

Humble leaders accept that they don't have all the answers and are willing both to admit mistakes and to give credit where it is due. They are confident enough to trust their hiring decisions and delegate authority. This is true power, rather than just the illusion of power.

Common Traits of a Humble Leader

Humble leaders embody the following key traits:

  • They are good listeners. When a person with humility listens, they are not just hearing another person's words. As Art Barter points out in his book, The Art of Servant Leadership II, they are listening with the goal of understanding what another person has to say.
  • They credit others. Humble leaders know that the best way to get positive results is through praise, and that includes giving proper attribution.
  • They admit to errors. Jim Whitehurst, the president and CEO of Red Hat, points out that "nothing builds engagement more than being accountable to the people in your organization." When leaders admit to their mistakes and take the time to explain to how they came to a bad decision, they model authenticity and accountability — traits they want to inspire throughout the organization.
  • They welcome feedback. Authoritarian leaders don't want feedback as much as they want praise. But praise should flow downward, while ideas trickle up. That is the best way to ensure that your team remains successful and engaged.
  • They have resolve. In Good to Great, Jim Collins argues that a company culture must have both humility and resolve in order to move from a good performance to an outstanding one. Companies that have made that leap by taking a disciplined look at what they were doing right and wrong and following through on fact-based assessments.

Why Humble Leadership Can Be Effective

When was the last time someone singled you out for praise? Whether it was a simple "like" on a social media post or commendation for the approach you took on a big project, it probably made your day. It made you feel like an authority on the subject, like a somebody.

That's the effect humble leadership has on an organization. Humble leaders elevate the people around them, instilling confidence and providing incentives for their team to produce their best work. Whereas authoritarian leadership causes people to compete for their boss's attention, humble leadership sparks engagement and leads to a collaborative effort.

Because humble leaders aren't afraid to be vulnerable, they also instill trust in the employees of an organization. Honesty and a willingness to explain the thought process behind your actions fosters a culture of transparency, which is strongly correlated with employee satisfaction, improved outcomes for job searches, and better relationships with customers.

How to Find Humble Leaders — Both Inside and Outside Your Organization

During the hiring phase, recruiters should be on the lookout for some of the core traits associated with humility, including good listening skills, resolve, and ready engagement. Prospective hires who are ambitious for the company's success — rather than their own — are good candidates, as are people who place the greater good above their own personal gain.

Fast Company recommends that organizations also learn to foster an everyday culture where humble leaders can thrive. Encouraging the following four traits is a great place to start:

  • Curiosity. Employees with curiosity are driven to learn new things. They are also able to adapt productively when given constructive feedback.
  • Insight. Another way of describing this trait is to call it the ability to think critically. Employees with insight can process information from different sources and bring this information together in innovative ways, breaking through the stagnation of unproductive thought patterns.
  • Engagement. Employees who engage others improve company culture by making authentic connections and truly taking the time to understand others' perspectives. They bring positive energy to the workplace.
  • Determination. This is the "fierce resolve" Jim Collins notes. Employees with determination have a growth mindset allows them to follow a fact-based set of expectation. Determined individuals don't mind changing course if that is the best strategy for achieving an outcome.

How Existing Leaders Can Become More Humble

One common misconception is that humility is a form of weakness. Another, argues Bill Taylor, writing for the Harvard Business Review, is you can't be humble and ambitious at the same time. The result of misconceptions like these is a workplace full of rigidly striving, arrogant individuals who boil the workplace down to a playing field where there are only winners and losers.

Instead of regarding everything as a competition, Taylor advises would-be humble leaders to see ambition and humility as mutually inclusive goals. You can strive for the company's success, or to build a product that best serves humanity; your only goal doesn't need to be destroying the competition.

It's also important to practice what Edgar Schein, in his book Humble Inquiry, calls "here-and-now humility." This is the feeling of dependence you have on someone who has information you lack. People hate feeling dependent on others so much that they would sometimes rather fail than admit they don't know the answer. Risking vulnerability, by admitting what you don't know, and asking for help, leads to growth, connection, and trust.

Valerie Fulton

Valerie Fulton writes in the personal finance and business coaching space, writing for clients as diverse as Bankrate, The Simple Dollar, Jumpbydesign, and Peak Corporate Network. When not parked in front of her computer, she can be found working to restore the 200-year-old farmhouse she bought on the coast of Maine.

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