Humble Leaders

HumbleHumility is a key characteristic for everyone to embrace. True humility is rarely seen in the ranks of leaders. Ego, rather than humility, seems to be the more common trait in management circles. Let’s examine why this is and suggest some ideas to modify the pattern.

Anyone who has reached a leadership position has a tale to tell. He or she got there through a series of steps and events, some of them deserved and some of them just being in the right place at the right time or knowing the right people.

We can believe in synchronicity or nepotism, but still it usually takes a lot of energy and talent to get ahead. People in the organization may look at a newly appointed leader and remark how he “lucked into it,” but, as Earl Nightingale said in Lead The Field, “Luck is what happens when preparedness meets opportunity.”

There should be some level of personal satisfaction for a leader when he or she emerges from the pack and is elevated. It is a kind of milestone that should be celebrated.

Upon reaching a higher level, the leader quickly becomes aware of an increase in power and influence. I once got a big promotion, and a Dilbert-like IT employee in the new organization started calling me “thou” and “thee” until I put an end to it.

It is very easy to let the trappings or perks of a higher level inflate one’s ego. There is nothing wrong with appreciating one’s self worth if it is kept in proper perspective and the person also appreciates and publicly acknowledges the worth of others.

Unfortunately, many leaders do lose perspective and start acting like jerks. Scott Adams, inventor of the Dilbert Cartoon Series would have needed to make a living in some other field if it were not for hubris on the part of leaders.

The role of humility in creating and maintaining trust in organizations was well documented by Jim Collins in Good to Great.  Collins identified passion and humility as two common traits of the most effective leaders – he called them “level 5 leaders.”

It is easy to see the impact of a conceited leader on the organization. If the leader is so brilliant, then nobody else needs to be vigilant. People lose heart and will to help the cause. This forces the leader to be more all knowing and perfect because real support is not there.

Warren Bennis put it this way, “One motive for turning a deaf ear to what others have to say seems to be sheer hubris: leaders often believe they are wiser than all those around them. The literature on executive narcissism tells us that the self-confidence top executives need can easily blur into a blind spot, an unwillingness to turn to others for advice.”

Leaders who are convinced they are so macho and smart have a difficult time hearing what people are really saying. I love James O’Toole’s observation,

“…it is often the presence of excessive amounts of testosterone that leads to a loss of hearing.”

It would be easy to say “don’t be too full of yourself” and show the benefits of humility. Unfortunately for the narcissist leader, changing the thought patterns and behaviors is extremely difficult.

The problem is the blind spots that Bennis refers to. Goleman also noticed the same tendency when he identified that leaders with low Emotional Intelligence have the most significant blind spots.

The issue of leader hubris is perhaps the most common schism that exists between the senior levels and the workers. If it is so important, what can we do about it? Is there a kind of anti-hubris powder we can sneak into the orange juice of over inflated executives? Oh, if it were only that easy.

What we are talking about here is reeducating the boss with influence from below. We want to let him know that his own attitude is getting in the way of trust. Reeducating the boss is always tricky. It reminds me of the adage, “Never wrestle a pig…you get all muddy and the pig loves it.” What do the sailors do if they are facing a Captain Bligh every day? Mutiny is one option, but it can get pretty bloody.

The road to enlightenment is through education. One suggestion is to form a kind of support network with the employees and leaders on the topic of leadership. Book clubs where employees along with their leaders take a lunch hour once a week to study the topic can begin a constructive dialog.

You can’t just march into the bosses office and say, “You are a total narcissist, knock it off and get down from your pedestal.” You need to use a water drop treatment with lots of Socratic Questions.

Shaping the thought patterns of a superior in the organization is a slow process, like changing the face of the planet in Arizona. Drop by drop and particle by particle, the sand and soil have been moved to reveal the Grand Canyon. Changing a leader’s approach might not take eons, but the slow shaping process is the same, only in human years.

Some leaders will remain clueless regardless. I know one leader who will go to her grave totally blind when it comes to her attitude about her own capability and superiority. If she was reading this passage, she would be nodding her head affirmative and be 100% convinced that I was referring to somebody else, not her. Perhaps the only hope for a leader like this is some form of radical shock treatment in the form of a series of pink slips.

If you are a leader, try this little test. If you are inclined to think you don’t have any hubris and are a humble servant leader all the time, chances are you have some serious blind spots. Go and get it checked out! If your mental picture is one of an imperfect person trying to learn more about how to lead, then you are probably okay.

8 Responses to Humble Leaders

  1. bobvanourek says:

    Great post again, Bob. Thank you.
    Some wise sage once said that humility can’t be claimed; it can only be observed.
    It is extremely hard to see yourself as others see you. I believe that if one wants to be a good leader, then you need to authorize people you trust to tell you the loving truth on how you are behaving. Then you don’t wait for them to speak up; you meet with them frequently and ask for their input.
    I had a CFO once who told me, his CEO, that his job was to be my best friend and worst critic. I could count on him 100% for honest feedback, telling truth to power, even as a voice of one. Such a colleague is priceless.

  2. trustambassador says:

    Amen, Bob! And the trick to get more people do be that kind of colleague is to build a reputation for reinforcing people who share things about you that you were really not that anxious to hear. As you know, I call that “reinforcing candor” and I believe that trait in a leader is the best leading indicator of a culture of high trust.

  3. edgar schein says:

    I think this is the most important topic for organizational futures because after I wrote “Humble Inquiry” (2013) most of my OD friends tell me they like the message but how do they get their boss who is the problem to look at it. A few have tried just giving them the book with some success, but the deeper problem is that the higher you go in our managerial culture the less humble you are and less likely you are to value feedback and to create an environment in which your subordinates will feel psychologicaly safe to their less boss not only what they have to say about him or her, but more importantly what is working and not working down in the organization which affects quality, productivity and safety. Ed Schein

    • trustambassador says:

      Thanks Edgar. We agree that this is a big deal in many organizations. I tried to come up with a few actions that frustrated people could take that would have the potential to gain on the problem. It will always be there, but by educating leaders on how much they are leaving off the table, perhaps a few of them can see the light. Anyway, I’m glad for your coments and support on this issue.

      • edgar schein says:

        Thanks in turn for your response. I fear the problem is actually getting worse as competitive individualism is the career tournament that most executives excel at. This means to keep your eyes first inn the people above you, then on your peer competitors, what is left over to see your subordinates. Nothing. Ed Schein

  4. Reda says:

    Great read and very much needed. I’ve worked on coaching with several well known company leaders and one thing I’ve noticed in common with all of them- you will not teach them anything. They think they are the best and naturally- no one else can teach them anything valuable. I guess it is a “right thing to do” to try various interventions, but honestly, I think all of that is a waste of time and resources causing more damage to the business and people around such boss. I do think that the only way it is to tell them this unpleasant truth, a reality check-in, so to speak, and ask, how we can help him/her work on it, change it. If you see no interest in accomodating this change, it might be time to just let such leader go.

  5. Tirzah McPheson Lewis says:

    Not an expert by any means but in my own experience… honoring the vulnerability of the leader. I have a lot of information in a specialized area with it’s own jargon that although a part of the organization is not something our leader is exposed to every day. I had to learn to honor their vulnerability and realize that sometimes the hubris is a protective shield. Another thing I’ve tried is really studying how they best receive information and delivering my message of humility that way. Is the person very global in their thinking? Who do they listen to (colleagues/ experts etc.) Do those thought leaders or peers have a message that can be shared that your leader may receive better? If so how do they glean information? Do they read articles, do they never listen and only read the first few lines of email? Email an article, make the subject short and specific, embed a podcast of one of their favorite speakers (who just so happens to be telling leaders… “look you’re being an idiot, pull it together” OR state that you’re thinking of listening to it and would value their opinion. It’s sneaky yes, but sometimes when you’re just not in the position to say it yourself, you’ve got to get a little sneaky. For those with leaders that will just believe in their wonderfulness all the days of their lives… well all I can say is work around it, learn from it and when you move on (and up) don’t become the same way.

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