The Need for More Humble Leaders

Humble leaders listen more effectively, inspire great teamwork and collaboration as well as driving focus on achieving organisational goals.

According to Jim Collins author of Good to Great, the best leaders display a combination of humility and fierce resolve. They are “modest, self-effacing, understated and fanatically driven by results”.

A survey published in the Journal of Management revealed that humility in CEOs led to higher-performing leadership teams, increased collaboration and cooperation and flexibility in developing strategies.

New research builds on this explaining that in that humility it is “the integration of self-awareness, teachability, and an appreciation of the capabilities of others. These are traits that allow for inclusive teams and continuous learning that are foundational for creating innovative cultures.”

Egon Zehnder - important characteristics of great leaders

It is not uncommon for some people to misinterpret humility for a lack of confidence or ambition. Rather humble leaders express their confidence and ambition in different ways. They seek to achieve more for the success of the company rather themselves.

Humility at its core is an increased valuation of others rather than a devaluation of self. Humble people don’t often need to seek affirmation or self-promote.  This is one of those areas where celebrities have conditioned our cognitive bias to believe that you have to behave like a rockstar to be a success.

Egon Zehnder have developed a ‘Potential Model’ which provides organisations a framework to evaluate the leadership attributes of candidates while not over emphasising charisma and ambition.

“A great man is always willing to be little.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson
  1. CURIOSITY | They are driven to proactively seek understanding and new learning. This includes through feedback. Curiosity is linked to teachability and the desire to see one’s self accurately.
  2. INSIGHT | They process information from many sources and use it to shape insights that make sense of ambiguity and break the status quo.
  3. ENGAGEMENT | The engage the hearts and minds of others to deliver shared objectives and mutual benefits. This is someone who gains energy from authentically connecting with others and understanding them on a deep level. Engagement is linked to self-awareness and appreciation for others capabilities.
  4. DETERMINATION | They enjoy a challenge but don’t let their strength of purpose turn into stubbornness. This person will take on risks with ingenuity and tenacity, but can stay nobles and change direction when needed. Determination is the “fierce resolve” described by Collins.

How To Develop Yourself As A Humble Leader

  • Motivate yourself by focusing on how to drive outstanding results rather than your own success. Promote what you are doing as a way to get the team to be recognised.
  • Think about what values define you as a leader. (courage, compassion, integrity). Consider how your leadership identity embraces these attributes and communicate your values as a leader.
  • Be transparent (as possible) about your aspirations, use these conversations to continue to drive your development and avoid being seen as “a good soldier”.
  • Humility requires increased self-awareness and motivation to modify your mindset and behaviours.
  • Continue to seek feedback and work with a coach to focus on desired behaviour changes.
  • Deepen your motivation by connecting to a bigger purpose and the opportunity to make a bigger impact.

Research from Berkley University looked at what would mean for the whole company culture to be humble. They came up with six norms that should be cultivated to achieve generosity and cohesion of a humble organisation.

  1. Accurate Awareness – refers to the organisation and its employees making non-biased, clear-headed assessments of the strengths and weaknesses of themselves and others.
  2. Tolerating Competent Mistakes – mistakes that result from novel ideas and not from flawed execution. Embracing these kinds of mistakes can help ensure that effective learning takes place.
  3. Transparency and Honesty – humble organizational cultures tend to be more transparent and honest. Individuals are frank and open about their ideas as well as their limitations.
  4. Openness – a humble organizational culture means being open to new and outside ideas.
  5. Employee Development – humble organisational cultures also prioritise employee development and continuous learning.
  6. Employee Recognition – humble organizational cultures regularly appreciate and celebrate the successes of their people

Key Takeaways

  • Companies need humble leaders, they build culture and drive results.
  • You can develop your skills and maintain leadership ambitions while being humble but it requires plenty of self-awareness.
DIGEST of an article from Egon Zehnder
We Need More Humble Leaders. Here’s How to Get Them
By Karl Allerman
Published: 5th June 2019 

and Fast Company
Secrets of The Most Productive People
By Karl Allerman and Julie Kalt

and Forbes
Why Humble Leaders Make The Best Leaders
by Jeff Hyman
Published: 31 October 2018

and Berkeley Greater Good
How to Infuse Your Company Culture with Humility
By Tiffany Maldonado and Dusya Vera
Published: 29th January 2019 

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