Lead with genuine humility to inspire loyalty, learning, and collaborative problem-solving.
To be a successful leader, humility is becoming increasingly crucial. In today’s complex world, no one person has the answers. Leaders increasingly need help from their teams to thrive. And humble leaders inspire greater loyalty and higher productivity.
Not surprisingly, people like working for leaders who are honest about their own limitations and invested in the entire team’s success.
One study on CEO humility found that managers who demonstrate this attitude fare significantly better in terms of employee engagement as well as empowerment.
Leading with humility also plays a pivotal role in fostering an environment of learning, creativity, and collaboration. Catalyst research across six countries identified caring leadership as a key driver of inclusiveness. When people feel included, they go that extra mile for the team. When they feel heard, ideas flourish. When leaders are respectful and trust their team members, a collaborative spirit emerges. Plus, when you show a willingness to learn and plug your own knowledge gaps, your team is also motivated to upskill and grow. In such a setting, complex problems – those that require a free-flowing exchange of expertise and ideas – stand a much better chance of being solved.
In her article on humility in The Washington Post, Ashley Merryman describes this very aptly:
“True humility, scientists have learned, is when someone has an accurate assessment of both his strengths and weaknesses, and he sees all this in the context of the larger whole. He’s a part of something far greater than he. He knows he isn’t the center of the universe. And he’s both grounded and liberated by this knowledge. Recognizing his abilities, he asks how he can contribute. Recognizing his flaws, he asks how he can grow.”
So, drawing from this, my message this week is on how to ‘Be Humble’ (which is also a core value of the Ndiema Way), especially as it relates to leadership.
While in the corporate world, it can be tempting by some to think of humility as a flaw, remember that being humble doesn’t mean being weak, wishy-washy, or submissive. Rather, it implies a high degree of self-awareness, openness to new ideas, and desire for growth. Humility isn’t a weakness – it is exactly the opposite, in fact. Humble leaders have enough true confidence in their own abilities to not feel the need to brag and bluff, or to dominate over their teams. They are willing to acknowledge personal limitations and admit mistakes. They value other people’s contributions and care for their teams – be it giving dissenting views a fair hearing, sharing the glory of success, or going beyond the call of duty at crunch times. At the other end of the spectrum from humility, lie arrogance and the constant need for praise; these are problematic traits in anyone, but especially in a leader.
In the Ndiema Way, we define to ‘Be Humble’ as:
- We own up to and learn from our mistakes
- We ask for feedback. And then grow with it.
- We give credit wherever due
How can you start fostering a deeper culture of humility, both for yourself, as well as within your teams? Here are some suggestions:
1. Get your hands dirty
In an urgent and high-pressure situation, be willing to jump in and do the work that needs to be done, rather than complaining about it or overloading your team. Pick up a phone, meet a vendor, talk to a customer, be by your team’s side if they are working late – leading with humility means that no job is beneath your pay grade. Let your team know that you’re all in this together. Leaders who go above and beyond inspire others around them to do the same. Along with building loyalty and boosting morale, you will also gain a first-hand understanding of the day-to-day challenges faced by your team.
2. Invite honest feedback
An excellent starting point to cultivate greater self-awareness is your 360-degree review. Shashank Shekhar had shared some great perspectives on this in a blog post last year. But you don’t always need to wait until the mandated organisational process rolls around. Find ways to ask for more regular feedback in your interactions with your teams and peers. As John Dame and Jeffrey Gedmin explain in Six Principles for Developing Humility as a Leader, published in the Harvard Business Review, this exercise pays off in two ways:
“It shows you how your self-perception deviates from others’ perception of your leadership. (And in leadership, perception is reality.) And it gives you a valuable practice in receiving feedback and turning criticism into a plan for growth and development.”
3. Celebrate your team’s success more than your own
Be quick to acknowledge the contributions of your team members when things go well. Direct the spotlight away from yourself and towards them, and appreciate the important role played by every person. When things go wrong, on the other hand, try to take the onus upon yourself. Humble leaders take less than their share of the credit and more than their share of the blame. Sounds thankless? Well, you may lose out on the temporary joys of self-congratulation and vocal praise, but you will gain the long-term respect and loyalty of your team.
4. Transform mistakes into teachable moments
Admitting that you’ve messed up can be extremely hard, especially because you don’t want your team to think any less of you. But this is a crucial lesson for all leaders to learn. Readily accepting your mistakes actually elevates you in the eyes of those who work with you. Think about it logically: who could respect a person who blames someone else for their mistakes or sweeps them under the rug? On the other hand, when you own up to faults and make it clear that you are learning/have learned from them, you enable your team to do the same. Let your personal growth story inspire the people around you.
5. Don’t be a know-it-all
Being convinced that you have all the answers, that you’ve heard it all before, can make you ‘intellectually arrogant’. You will see new information as a threat, rather than an advantage, because you are so afraid of appearing ignorant. The ‘intellectually humble’, on the other hand, embrace ambiguity – which is a given in today’s business climate. They are passionately curious to learn more, welcoming new facts and insights.
The truth is that as a leader, you’re not supposed to have the correct answer right off the bat. Your role is to pull together the expertise, pool the relevant information, and then decide on the best course of action. Create the space for others to come forward with their knowledge. John Dame and Jeffrey Gedmin offer this great piece of advice:
“Resist “master of the universe” impulses. You may yourself excel in an area, but as a leader you are, by definition, a generalist. Rely on those who have relevant qualification and expertise. Know when to defer and delegate.”
6. Open your mind – and your ears
Do you instantly dismiss contrary views or alternate suggestions, insisting that you “know what’s best”? Humility means considering the possibility that your idea may not, in fact, be the smartest one in the room. So, leave your ego at the door and be willing to listen – really listen – to what the rest of your team has to say. Have a dialogue, not a debate: engage, ask questions, get details, elicit suggestions. The end goal is not for you to score an individual win, it’s to come up with a win for the entire team (and by extension, the organisation). Showing people that you value their input is a huge step towards creating a positive environment that welcomes innovation and fresh ideas.
7. Empower your team members
Along with sharing the glory, delegate responsibility and decision-making. Empowerment is at the heart of effective leadership, so make it a priority to enable the growth and achievement of your team members. This could mean taking the time to mentor promising talent, encouraging people to take on more challenging assignments, and letting the team make certain decisions independently. Resist the tendency to micromanage: leading with humility means choosing capable people, nurturing and training them, and then letting them get on with their work. You must have faith that your team can do their jobs well, without constantly looking over their shoulders and thinking you could do it better. This decentralisation of authority and demonstration of trust goes a long way towards lifting morale and productivity.
One final point: it is important to not feign humility. I have seen many people who appear deferential in front of bosses. And then, with peers or in front of their teams, they show an entirely different face. If you are highly self-interested or care only about your agenda, sooner or later, people will see through you. Remember that humility is about putting others and the organisation first in thoughts, words and actions.
So, take the time to reflect on whether you are really able to recognise your limitations and seek feedback. Share the credit for successes, and learn to take responsibility when things go wrong. Honestly, without humility, you just can’t learn. And try to make it a point to ask yourself some of these questions more often – how forgiving are you, really? Can you readily apologise when you’re wrong? Do you practise gratitude?
As always, I look forward to your perspectives.