Leader behaviour comes in many shades and styles but more and more leadership experts are beginning to recognise the extremely important role that being able to stay humble plays in effective leadership.
Humble leaders are able to recognise their mistakes, learn from others, give credit where credit is due, and keep their personal egos in check. But don’t mistake humility for weakness or for being ‘soft’.
When we think of traits leaders typically exhibit, many come to mind—including strength, charisma, enthusiasm, and vision. But in a competitive environment, high egos, self-promotion and driving the team hard is quite the norm when it comes to the domain of the leader. Being a courageous humble leader takes confidence. It is being bold but not brash, resolute but not rebellious. It is self–confidence balanced with self-effacement. Arrogance, on the other hand, is the impoverished cousin of dignity. Only the truly fearless recognise the power that comes with humility.
When talking to leaders are lacking in the area of humility I often reflect on the work of Jim Collins, author of Good to Great. Collins identifies five levels of leaders and notes that Level 5 executives, those displaying the best traits of leadership, build enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will. They channel their egos away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company or organisation. At a deeper level, he found that for leaders to make something great, their ambition had to be for the greatness of the work and the company, rather than for themselves.
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. They apportion credit to factors outside themselves (mainly other members of their team) when things go well. At the same time, they take personal responsibility when things go poorly.
Can you be too humble? At some stages in your career, perhaps you can. There are occasions when some leaders who are aiming to become leaders at the top of the strategic apex of the organsation, need to lift up their leadership ‘brand’ by self-promotion and assertive behaviour to compete with their naturally ego driven co-workers. But in the long term they will be more effective leaders once they reach positions where they can make a difference, and the need to impress to get to the top is over.
So what are some ways to stay humbler?
1. Be open to others’ opinions
Humble leaders seek input from others to ensure they have all the facts and are making decisions that are in the best interest of the team. No one person has all the answers. If you think you do, then it’s probably time to reassess.
People want to work for people who value their opinions. Effectively humble leaders are comfortable asking for input and can just as easily be decisive and make the call independently when the situation calls for it.
2. Tend to others’ needs
Team performance is typically much higher when team members believe their leaders are truly looking out for their best interests. That doesn’t mean hand-holding, but it does mean caring about the environment in which your team is working and ensuring that they have what they need to do a good job.
While intelligence and skill are typically good predictors of team performance, the quality of humility—especially in a team’s leadership—can be a better performance predictor.
3. Admit mistakes and be ok with vulnerability
It’s tough to be transparent and open—even those who consider themselves humble don’t want to look like they’ve messed up. But, as human beings we all make mistakes. When you’re willing to share your own missteps, and how you dealt with and recovered from them, you earn trust from your team. Vulnerability based trust is currently much talked about in leadership research.
4. Give up control from time to time
Many leaders want to control everything. But some things can’t be known up front. You have to know when to take charge—or when to let go and not try to force everything to go your way.
Like many leadership skills, humility may not come easily to everyone. Understand the importance of self-reflection. Ask others for feedback, undertake a 360 feedback process, keep a reflective log on what behaviours you use and if they are successful or need changing to stay humble.
6. Let people do their jobs
Micromanaging kills morale—and it isn’t very humble. Choose good people, train them, then get out of the way and let them do their jobs . It can take humility to admit that your way isn’t the only way or even that some people are better at certain roles than you. The humble leader accepts these truths and allows others’ strengths to work for the good of the team or organisation without interference.
Resolve to work on your own humility and you’ll begin to notice and appreciate its power all around you. Don’t be afraid to speak of your own failures, weaknesses and blind spots, and how they have informed your learning and ultimate success. Doing so will make us all more effective leaders and better performers.
How do you stay humble? What are your thoughts? Tips?