Humility and Leadership

October 30, 2018
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Years ago, I shared an early draft of a competency model with a Japanese colleague. He responded, “Where is humility on this model? If you have humility, you include customer service, quality, etc.” I replied that customer service and quality were already represented on the model, but that when you norm a model on American executives, humility doesn’t necessarily jump to the top of the list. This remains too true today.

Cultural differences may account for some, but not all of the differences in these perspectives. Indeed, Japanese culture encourages selflessness and group decision making, and American culture celebrates independent thinkers and individual achievement.  In the U.S., promotions and pay are often given to top producers, not great managers. Many of the leaders that we celebrate built their empires on the backs of their workers, e.g., the industrialists of the early 20th century.

Humility is a highly desirable and infrequently observed quality in leaders. Leaders are most effective when they view themselves as working in service to their teams. By providing clarity of purpose, removing obstacles and providing resources and coaching to their direct reports, managers help increase employee engagement and drive achievement. Knowing when to get out of the way is one of the most effective things that leaders can do to empower their teams.

There are some situations where heroic, ego-driven leadership is indicated. During a crisis, people look for decisive, single-minded leaders who are crystal clear on what they expect to happen next. Employees certainly appreciate leaders who don’t ask them to do what they are unwilling to do themselves, e.g., working late night or on weekends. However, if this me-first characteristic is overdone, leaders will take the opportunities to learn and develop out of the hands of their direct reports and solve the situation themselves. In order to build organizational capability, it is preferable to leave the solutions to the people who are closest to the work and coach them towards improved performance.

Learning to be in service to the whole is one of the most difficult transitions for leaders to make.  Managers are often promoted for their individual effectiveness, but as they step up to larger leadership challenges, they will find themselves unable to scale their leadership if they stay too involved in the details. The ability to step away from micromanagement and trust their teams is a good demonstration of humility in action. Said another way, the skills that got them here are not the skills that will take them forward. Demonstrating humility builds trust and inspires followership for executives, providing them with the bandwidth to engage in more strategic pursuits.

Expressing gratitude for the platform that one is given is fundamental to demonstrating humility. Too often, executives are eager to attribute success to their own individual efforts and fail to credit the organizational resources that support their achievement, particularly around bonus negotiation time. More humble leaders recognize that they are most effective in the context of their organizations and that they need to be selfless in supporting the company that has enabled their success.

Some practical suggestions for demonstrating humility and gratitude:

Take stock: Reflect on the experiences and personal characteristics that have brought you to this point in your life. Parse out those things that are unique to you and those that you have been given. Make a list of those people and events that have supported your growth and achievement. Hint: It’s a long list.

Give thanks: It’s a small action that goes a long way. Thanking those around you who are integral to your success recognizes their contribution and inspires their partnership. Too often, people never know the impact that they have had on your life. Telling them what they did and how it was helpful to you will inspire optimism and engagement on their part.

Give back: To whom much has been given, much is expected. One of the best ways to honor your mentors and colleagues is to devote your efforts to developing the leadership of the future, whether that be in your community or place of work. In the end, the talent that you enable and inspire represents your legacy.

Stay grounded: Be realistic about your contributions and your limitations. Ask for feedback not just about what you have done well, but how you might improve. Set personal goals for your ongoing development and growth.

What goes around, comes around. The ability to demonstrate humility and show gratitude is certain to be returned in spades. Recognizing where your contribution ends and celebrating the contributions of others is fundamental to your ongoing growth and success as a leader. Good luck!

Jeff Kirschner has over 35 years of leadership development experience. Jeff delivers CEO succession, board effectiveness, senior executive coaching, assessment, and executive team development services to multibillion dollar and Fortune 500 companies.