What are the attributes of a great leader? Words that probably spring to mind when you think of some of the most successful high-profile CEOs are charismatic, driven, powerful, visionary, and bold. You’re far less likely to conjure up a human trait that I would argue is just as important: humility.
This occurred to me during a recent meeting with a senior executive of a major U.S. corporation, someone with huge responsibilities overseeing a large workforce. I was impressed by the way he interacted with his subordinates and the way they responded. It was obviously a mutually respectful relationship and one that has helped create a healthy workplace culture and delivered results for his organization.
As I drove away from the meeting and thought about this individual, the one word that came to mind to describe him was humble. That led me to wonder if there was any research to substantiate my feeling that humility is a trait that many successful leaders have and which can bring out the best in people. Sure enough, there are studies that support this view.
A survey of more than 100 small- to medium-sized companies in the computer industry published in the Journal of Management found that “when a more humble CEO leads a firm, its top management team (TMT) is more likely to collaborate, share information, jointly make decisions, and possess a shared vision.” The result: greater success.
Research at the University of South Australia delivered similar outcomes. A study of 120 work teams showed that humble leaders improve team performance and effectiveness. The lead researcher Chad Chiu, Ph.D., of the university’s Center for Workplace Excellence, said, “Team leaders must understand the true impact of humility as it can have a huge impact on the well-being and productivity of their team. Embrace it, and you will thrive.”
I make the case that while it might seem counter-intuitive, humble leadership is not a sign of weakness—it is a sign of confidence and strength.
But is it possible to achieve humility? What can you do to embrace, adopt and harness the attributes of a humble leader?
Be a listener
Don’t make decisions without sounding out members of your team. Get as much input as you can. Give everyone the opportunity to share their views and their ideas. Let others contribute their thoughts before you put yours forward. Humble leaders make their team feel included, which encourages them to speak up with bright, even risky, ideas which improve company performance. Truly listen and act on the input.
Be a communicator
Keep in touch with everyone on a regular basis and let them know why decisions have been made, how it impacts them and what’s expected of them. In the best workplace cultures, employees have a sense that leaders are working with them, not over them.
Humble leaders don’t try to take all the credit. They fully recognize and publicly acknowledge the individual contributions of members of their team. They praise each team member’s skills. They operate as mentors or coaches to inspire and show their employees how they can use their talents and execute at their best.
Don’t be a know-it-all
Humble leaders don’t feel that they are infallible and have all the answers. They consult. They confer. They accept that others have valid experiences and opinions that should not be ignored. They never feel that they have to be the smartest person in the room. This is another way to spark contributions from others that can make a huge difference in developing projects.
I’ve always found that you learn more by doing something wrong than you do by doing something right. You just have to be sure you acknowledge the error, correct it, move forward, and make smarter, more informed decisions with this newfound knowledge. Admitting you were wrong is often tough for a leader to do. It can be embarrassing and painful, but ultimately it shows a toughness that your workforce can emulate.
Humble leaders seek out ways to raise up members of their team. They don’t need to take all the glory for themselves and trample others as they step up the ladder. They don’t need sycophants to support their positions. On the contrary, they genuinely recognize that team members bring individual skills and expertise that they may well not possess. A display of humility builds trust and a dynamic team spirit.
Why is humble leadership so important?
There’s a generational upheaval underway. We’re seeing millennials, who are increasingly moving into senior management positions, favoring a more servant-oriented leadership style. A servant leader sincerely cares about the well-being of their employees and believes that companies have a responsibility to work for the greater good. As I write in my book, Culture Ignited: 5 Disciplines for Adaptive Leadership,
“The flourishing businesses will be those whose leaders recognize that purpose drives profits and profits sustain purpose. They go hand in hand.”
It’s a message that’s embraced and enacted by humble leaders.