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Leading with humility: The rise of the humble leader

In the age of disruption, leading with humility is the key to developing greater trust, stronger interpersonal relationships and cooperative alliances.

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” said Isaac Newton.

The age of disruption is driving change in the skills required for effective leadership in the 21st century. Enter stage left the humble leader, the hitherto unrecognised leadership quality that’s rising quickly to become a star force behind increased engagement, adaptability, collaboration and innovation.

What humility is not

It’s unfortunate that being humble has in the past been taken as meaning adopting a position of supplication and self-interest. What self-respecting leader would choose to be associated with the Dickensian interpretation aka Uriah Heep from David Copperfield? But this interpretation is wrong.

What humility is

Humility is a mindset that allows you by choosing to think less about yourself, to change your world perspective, to be more conscious of your hidden biases and to seek what’s good for the organisation.
As American pastor and author Rick Warren noted in The Purpose Driven Life, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”

Why humility matters

Humility leverages greater collaboration and creativity.

As digitalisation and AI have become inextricably intertwined with our thinking, behaviours and actions, tapping into our curiosity, learning and good interpersonal skills positions the humble leader as a catalyst, differentiating human from machine and boosting performance and productivity.

Achieving this requires new thinking. Dennis Baltzley, Korn Ferry’s global head of leadership development believes the time has come for self-disruptive leadership.

“Self-disruptive leaders are highly learning agile, self-aware, emotionally and socially intelligent, purpose driven and assured, but humble.”

Though a Korn Ferry evaluation of 150,000 leaders reported only 15% of global leaders are currently self-disrupters indicating uptake of these ideas remains slow.

Humility removes the need for the leader to have all the answers.

As data continues to grow exponentially, it’s no longer possible to know everything. What’s required is continual learning, re-evaluating and in some instances unlearning. As Satya Nadella CEO of Microsoft and author says: “It’s time to move from being know-it-alls, to learn-it-alls.”

When we’re stuck in “knowing”, the risk becomes the loss of possibility thinking and a drop in the creation of new development ideas. Knowing uninvites inclusion or questioning.

5 benefits of being a humble leader

  1. By focusing attention on others, humility bolsters compassion and generosity, freeing up mental space for quiet, deep, reflective thought.
  2. It promotes a more mindful approach to decision-making through active listening and asking better questions.
  3. It builds cultural competence by bringing together the diversity of beliefs, attitudes and behaviours, making it easier to then work on how to align with new policies and practices that promote progress and acceptance of change.
  4. It reveals the leader as human. While exposing our vulnerability and fallibility isn’t easy, studies have shown how organisations led by humble leaders enjoy improved interpersonal relationships with higher levels of trust, engagement, innovation and a sense of belonging.
  5. It builds psychological safety. By admitting their own shortcomings or failures, acknowledging the capabilities and achievements of others and demonstrating a willingness to learn, the humble leader makes it feel safe for others to speak up, to voice an opinion, share an idea and get creative.
  6. Humility moves leaders from good to great

    In his book From Good to Great, Jim Collins noted the two characteristics separating the best from the rest, as the combination of humility partnered with a tenacity to always do what is right for the company.

    Bank of England Governor Mark Carney in the context of globalisation being seen as creating inequality recently stated that to win trust, successful leaders need to show humility and empathy.

    Other research has shown CEO humility to have important positive implications for company outcomes through improved team collaboration and cooperation. Humility makes relationships and cooperative alliances work better.

    The bottom line is that employees want to follow a leader who they perceive puts the best interests of the company and employees first. Humility boosts stronger teamwork, engagement, longer tenure and sustainable high performance. That’s why leading with humility is the key to greater commitment, collaboration and adaptability to change.

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