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Is the Humble Leader a Paradox?

In the organizational leadership class that I teach, we discuss a business case each week with the goal of identifying the main issues and developing possible solutions.  The cases cover a variety of industries, companies and situations.  Given that this is a class focused on leadership, the underlying problems in these cases center around people.  For example, one case has to do with the challenges in work styles and personalities of an experienced marketing director and his ‘rising star’ but problematic marketing manager.

Week after week, a pattern emerged from each case discussion:  The leader in the case would have been more effective had she or he behaved with more humility. 

But wait, isn’t humility a sign of weakness, submissiveness or indecision?  When we think of strong leaders, don’t we think of leaders like Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk? 

Aren’t strong leaders supposed to be charismatic, visionary and courageous?

In his best-selling book, Good to Great, Jim Collins found that great leaders are a blend of, “personal humility and professional will.”  In his research, Collins did not seek humility as an effective leadership behavior.  The data told him that the most effective leaders, as judged by the performance of their companies, were also humble.[i]

The Leadership & Development Journal did a study on the effect of humble leadership on employee proactive behavior.  Their findings were that humble leadership had a significantly positive effect on employee proactive behavior and that this effect is mediated by psychological empowerment.[ii]

In my 25 years as a human resource professional, I’ve worked with leaders of varying personalities, temperament and approaches.  Some were gregarious while others were reserved.  Others were methodical and some were abstract.  Regardless of their approach, the effective leader was able to move the business forward and bring with him or her, the rest of the team.  Personal humility was a behavior that the effective leaders possessed.

As a leader, how can you know if you are behaving with humility?

Here are some questions to ask yourself about your level of humility:

Do I Practice Empathic listening?

A humble leader will truly listen to others.  Sounds simple, right?  So why do so many of us get this simple to understand yet hard to execute concept wrong?  Most of us probably think we are good listeners.

In the timeless classic, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey explains that the fifth habit of personal effectiveness is “Seek First to Understand, than to be Understood.”  A corner stone to this habit is empathic listening.  Covey goes on to explain this simple yet powerful concept:

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand, they listen with the intent to reply. “

Stephen R. Covey

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand, they listen with the intent to reply.”[iii]

Ouch.

How many of us have been in a serious discussion with someone else and can’t wait until they’re finished talking so we can tell them what we think, without listening to what they said?

Do I Put the Needs of the Team Above My Needs?

A humble leader will put the needs of the team above themselves.  Referring again to Collins book, he said the following about Level 5 Leaders (those that showed humility):

” Level 5 leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves and in the larger goal of building a great company.  It’s not that Level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interest.  Indeed, they are incredibly ambitious – but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.”

Jim Collins

“Level 5 leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves and in the larger goal of building a great company.  It’s not that Level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interest.  Indeed, they are incredibly ambitious – but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.”[iv]

Collins research found that the effective leaders of the great companies were consistent in putting the needs of the organization above personal desires.

Do I Welcome Feedback?

A leader that displays humility is able to solicit feedback from others.  Whether it’s pride or defensiveness, it’s difficult for most of us to ask for feedback.  It’s human nature.  No one wants to hear what they’re doing wrong or what they could improve.  However, the humble leader has the courage and humility to ask for feedback because as discussed earlier, the team is more important than themselves.

Ask yourself the following: “How could this feedback make me a more effective leader and move the team forward?”

Do I Help Remove Roadblocks?

A humble leader does whatever it takes to help others.  Removing roadblocks epitomizes the humble leader.  Regarding the needs of the team above personal desires, the humble leader looks for ways to help others succeed.  Not only does this behavior move the team forward, it creates trust within a team and often trickles down to others.

I once was struggling to complete a project on time.  One of my challenges was receiving information from a senior leader who was notorious for being unfocused.  My manager perceived I was struggling and simply asked me, “How can I help?”  I explained my situation and before I was finished, he offered to talk to this leader.  Before the day was over, I had the information I needed to finish my project.

Do you think I was grateful to my boss and trusted him more?

Humility is an important characteristic of an effective leader.  The data and research are clear.  By practicing empathic listening, focusing on the needs of the team, being open to feedback, and removing roadblocks, we can all become better leaders.

How do you lead with humility?

Are there other behaviors of a humble leader you can think of?

What’s one thing you would change to become a humbler leader?

Mark is the founder of Lōkahi Leadership Solutions. He helps leaders and teams achieve more in less time. Mark is also an online adjunct instructor and teaches classes in Organizational Leadership.  Lōkahi is a Hawaiian word that means unity, accord and harmony. 


[i] Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t (New York; Harper Collins, 2001)

[ii] Yanhong Chen, Baowei Liu, Li Zhang, Shashan Qian, Can leader ‘humility spark employee “proactivity”? The mediating role of psychological empowerment. May 8, 2018. (https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/LODJ-10-2017-0307/full/html)

[iii] Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, (New York; Simon and Schuster, 2004)

[iv] Ibid, “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t”


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