In our modern world of celebrity, product placement and competition there seems to be a degree of humility missing in some of our leaders. We have rock star CEOs and celebrity politicians consumed by self-importance and self-promotion pushing their own agendas with a confidence that borders on arrogance. Elements of our society seem so obsessed with personal success that humility can be seen as a sign of weakness. In a global environment that discredits someone for changing their mind or doubts someone’s motives if credit is given to a rival, it’s hard to be humble. Am I implying that humble leaders are not strong enough to make an impact in our organisations? Not at all. I believe those who act with humility have the confidence and emotional intelligence to know that it’s a collective effort that has enabled their leadership journey. These leaders are secure in their capabilities without being over confident, they have the courage to voice their opinions without overstating and they never forget where they have come from. Humble leaders understand that it is better to have someone else identify their talents than personally singing them from the rooftops.
For many humility can be seen as a sign of weakness. It doesn’t come easy to most people, especially when there are times that you need to ‘promote yourself’ to get that next job. We all have an ego and there are times when some calculated self-promotion will assist you, but it’s when this is driving you that it crosses the line. Humility is actually a really powerful tool; it allows you the ability to compromise by providing a sense of perspective and reason and an ability to accept alternate viewpoints. It also allows you to adjust, reflect and grow, attributes that are actually desirable and are worthy of self-promotion if needed. To be able to admit a mistake and demonstrate how you have overcome and learnt from it is a process that “sells’ you far more than a win on every occasion. It shows determination, reflection and strategic thinking. It demonstrates to those around you that you are capable of having robust debate and have the flexibility to change tact when needed.
Working for large organisations with various degrees of complexity we must understand that no one person can have full coverage of every aspect, issue or solution. A humble leader is comfortable admitting that they don’t know the answer; in fact they’re comfortable admitting that they may not know anything about a particular topic and deferring responsibility to someone who does. This is not admitting weakness, it’s actually utilising strength. Knowing that there are people who may be smarter or have a greater knowledge base is a critical element of leadership. Admitting that you need additional advice actually creates an opportunity for someone else to grow by providing them with space to showcase their expertise. Strong leaders are able to coordinate all resources available to them to make informed decisions. They are able to use this strategy to either secure some form of action from those around them or as a catalyst to initiate their own work. The ability to draw upon all resources openly admitting that you don’t have all the answers is a courageous leadership move that not everyone is comfortable with. Humble leaders won’t let ego get in the way of positive outcomes.
Humble leaders don’t micromanage. They understand that this level of scrutiny placed on those they work with can be harmful to productive working relationships. They pay attention to detail, they plan and have high expectations but they’re prepared to take less casualties on the journey. Micromanagement not only shows a lack of trust in your colleagues, it also shows a highly controlling personality. This not only demoralises those you work with but leads you to become less effective trying to have tight coverage and reign over all. This level of effort can only be sustained for so long. Humble leaders are able to get the same result, with a level of detail that delivers impact by asking questions not dictating terms.
Humble leaders know that they can learn from the collective intelligence in the room. Being able to look across the table at colleagues and opening your mind to new learning is a productive way of increasing your ability, knowledge base and strategic thinking. It also allows you to not become too fixated on one method of operation. Being comfortable enough to engage in debate and accept differing viewpoints, whilst not always agreeing demonstrates a clear level of leadership. Inexperienced leaders often get caught up in the power struggle trying to ensure that their idea is adopted as the final product. Whilst this allows them to come out on top in the argument it does little to the confidence of the team who may feel like there was a predetermined agenda. Successful leaders have a flexibility that focuses on the impact they want to have and the agility to change course when new evidence arises. Being humble in this situation and adopting the ideas of others not only builds a sense of team and collegiality but keeps everyone focused on the end goal. You are more likely to get successful outcomes when those you work with know that you accept and understand that there are different ways to achieve a goal. Humble leaders will acknowledge that the end point can be arrived at from many paths.
It takes a sense of humility to recognise your own areas for development and set about a plan of action to develop them. Humility allows us to seek the help of others by openly admitting that we have something to learn from those around us. History is littered with powerful leaders who lacked the humility to accept advice only to see what they had worked so hard to achieve crumble around them. Truly humble leaders understand that we are but a single part of a much larger picture. They are willing to step right outside their comfort zone even if it means that they appear not to be on top of their game. They will use these opportunities to grow, accepting contributions of others to assist them. They’ll prepare and do their homework to try and ensure they succeed, but they are willing to take the opportunity and are prepared to fail and live with the consequences. They have the humility to accept that they may not have succeeded and are willing to accept constructive advice from those around them knowing that it will strengthen their capabilities in the long run.
Working in large organisations we are often working in teams. We must recognise that we are supported by the efforts of others and give recognition when deserved. Watch a humble leader at work and there is no boasting, there is no grandstanding, they’ll happily give away credit and use a healthy sense of self-deprecating humour to deflect any kudos coming their way. It’s not to say they don’t have an ego, we all do but they are genuinely uncomfortable with praise in a public forum, they’d happily settle for a quiet ‘well done’ away from the spotlight knowing that the right decision has been made and that there is impact in the work of their team. They often display a modesty about their work, truly believing that what they are doing is just a fraction of the great work being conducted around them.
Am I a humble leader? I guess by actually asking the question and writing about it then possibly not. Claiming to be certainly negates the act itself. But I am trying to learn the lessons and apply them to my leadership journey. My challenge and possibly yours is to reflect on your behaviour each day and see if there is a degree of humility guiding it. Here are 6 things you can do to work on developing humility in your leadership.
- Admit your mistakes.
- Give credit to the work of others
- Accept others opinions (accepting is not the same as agreeing)
- Understand that you don’t have all the answers
- Let others lead
In a results driven society it’s hard to be humble. If you can build humility into your leadership repertoire those around you will thank you for it.