We're all attracted to confident people who know where they're headed, especially the leaders we want to follow. But take one wrong step into the terrain of arrogance and people dynamics change and trust erodes.

That's where the strength of humility comes in handy in leaders, but it is rarefied air. This often misunderstood word first struck me in the context of great leadership when bestselling author, Jim Collins, wrote about it his seminal book Good to Great.

Collins basically said that the best leaders direct their ego away from themselves to the larger goal of leading their company to greatness.

These leaders, as Collins determined in his research, gain an edge through displaying both fierce professional will and extreme personal humility. This paradoxical mix creates superb financial results.

In essence, humble leaders achieve greatness without arrogance. They shift from ego to humility which can drastically alter the outcome to their advantage.

If Humility Is So Important, Why Are Leaders So Arrogant?

That's the actual title of a new article in Harvard Business Review, written by Bill Taylor,​author of Simply Brilliant: How Great Organizations Do Ordinary Things in Extraordinary Ways. The HBR piece caught my interest because I, too, wanted to know the answer. 

While we may want to celebrate humility, Taylor writes that no one would use the word "humble" to describe brash public figures constantly making headlines, like the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Putting the question another way, he asks, "In the face of so much evidence that humble leaders do, in fact, outperform arrogant leaders, why is it so hard for leaders at every level to check their egos at the office door?"

Great question. There are two reasons:

1. A false perception that humility and ambition can't co-exist.

Traditional management thinking dictates that we can't be humble and ambitious at the same time. The assumption among executives is that competition -- between companies and between individuals within companies -- leaves no room for recognizing the virtues of humility.

2. Humility is perceived as too soft for real world business issues.

Conventional business thinking portrays humility as too soft for dealing with hard problems. Taylor says "it can make leaders appear vulnerable when people are looking for answers and reassurances." He adds, "That's precisely its virtue: The most effective business leaders don't pretend to have all the answers; the world is just too complicated for that. They understand that their job is to get the best ideas from the right people, whomever and wherever those people may be."

The most effective type of humility 

As I read further, I noticed mention of the work of Edgar Schein, professor emeritus at MIT Sloan School of Management and author of  Humble Inquiry. Schein identified a form of humility which he calls "here-and-now humility." This form of humility is the "most rarely observed in business, and the most relevant for leaders who truly want to achieve big things," writes Taylor in HBR.

Here-and-now humility is perfectly described by Schein in Dan Rockwell's "Leadership Freak" blog:

The essence of humility is what I call 'here and now' humility in the face of a task that is defeating me in the sense that I don't know exactly what to do next. ... I need to ask some questions. I need the help of the people around me.

'Here and now' humility requires the ability to evaluate current challenges and consider how available resources and skills are able to meet/not meet those challenges. The idea being that most of the time you come up short. Most of the time we don't know enough to know what to do next

Schein is spot on. I've been to many meetings where the person in charge assumes knowing more than the people in the room -- a "heroic" type of ego-based leadership that is short-sighted. Here-and-now humility acknowledges other people's knowledge, ideas, and expertise, even below their line of sight, which is critical to information exchange. It "assumes I need the people around me" and that "this is a collective process" to solving problems in which I alone cannot solve.

3 ways to achieve greatness through humility

I mentioned earlier that humble leaders achieve greatness without arrogance and that they shift from ego to humility which can drastically alter the outcome to their advantage. Through years of coaching and training my clients on how best to exercise their influence through humility, I've found three practical ways you can do it well.

1. Don't take the credit.

Leaders who deflect the spotlight away from them and allow their followers to be in the spotlight gain respect and loyalty at an alarming rate. There is something very liberating for employees when they receive credit, so make it a priority to shine the spotlight on them and their achievements.

2. Involve others.

You'll find humble leaders in open spaces sharing plans for the future, communicating important things to their people, and fostering a transparent culture. Humble leaders create an environment in which risks are taken, allowing those around them to feel safe to exercise their creativity, communicate their ideas openly, and provide input to major decisions. Because there's trust there, not fear. It communicates to employees a sense of "Hey, we're all in this together."

3. Listen more and talk less.

Humble leaders are unassuming and know what they think; they want to know what YOU think by listening intently. They allow followers the freedom to be part of the conversation. Humble leaders will ask curious questions, lots of questions: how something is done, what you like about it, what you learned from it, and what you need in order to be better. Humble leaders with loyal followers realize they know a lot, and seek to know even more by actively listening.

Published on: Nov 9, 2018
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