Humble Pie for Leaders. Delicious!

Stop Being So Cocky. Leaders Need Humility!
We are all familiar with image of the decisive, bossy and “cocky” leader. It’s an iconic idea that’s so ingrained, that admitting to being wrong or uncertain is a bit taboo. Even sports teams seem to rely on “star power” to make the baskets, hit goals and win the cup. And those stars often seem to lack even a vestige of humility or gratitude for their success and spotlight. It can even seem like the rest of team is at most, window-dressing, and at least, irrelevant.  If you look around, the same “star” traits are also valued in popular culture, the political arena and even in our reading of history.

The message is: Be confident, hide your insecurities and doubts, and show strength. Those are the keys to achieving success. Yet, data from sources as diverse as Google and the World Economic Forum, tell a different story. Organizations that are the most innovative and profitable, with the lowest employee turnover and the highest productivity, have leaders with measurably high levels of humility.  This contradicts the notion of great leaders as strong and autocratic.

When leaders are humble it delivers an important message to their teams and peers. For example, people who see their leaders admit mistakes or accept critical feedback, feel psychologically safer themselves. When people do not feel that sense of safety, they are less likely to take risks. In other words, if it isn’t safe enough for the leader to make mistakes, then it almost certainly isn’t safe for anyone else. And risk is a key component of innovation and creativity. Whether the business is creating software or crafting widgets, finding new and better ways to do the work, deliver the work, ship the work or even, reduce the work, can all be avenues for better business results.

Humility Draws People to You. It tells them they are safe and that they will be bigfger and stronger from being with you.

AJ devero

The other outcome when a leader sees himself as fallible is that his own work can improve faster than otherwise. Intellectual humility – operating within a context that anyone can be wrong – allows for improvement. Since leaders are the source of lots of downstream affects, if their ideas, strategies, plans or beliefs are improved then so will all that flows from them.

So how do you foster your own humility and demonstrate?  Here are some key steps:

  • Go public with your mistakes. Instead of being self-protective, when you discover you’ve made a mistake share it with your team so that everyone is in on the correction. That allows for two benefits. First, everyone avoids that error, and second, it demonstrates that fallibility is normal and acceptable.
  • When people disagree with you, engage with them in open discussion instead of arguing or shutting down the disagreement. This is hard because it can happen over things about which you are very certain. But giving people the opportunity to share their concerns or counter-arguments can be a rich opportunity for expanding your own understanding, of both the issue at-hand and the thinking of a member of your team. Humility doesn’t require you to change your position, but genuine consideration of the opposing viewpoint is important to fostering a culture of open discourse and risk taking.
  • Invite unfiltered feedback. That means hearing the unpleasant truth that your presentation was too long or your meeting rambling and unstructured. But it also lays the groundwork for others in the organization to be equally open to coaching and feedback. The caveat here is that this kind of open feedback culture must be strictly a “no character attack” zone.  It is behaviors, actions and activities that can be criticized, not people.
  • Admit to not knowing. When you embrace your own uncertainty, you open the door for more input and greater insights from others’ weighing in. This doesn’t mean turning your organization into a pure democracy. But often, you may not be sure what the best move will be, and by allowing the team to see your uncertainty you can learn about unintended consequences you might not otherwise see, and they can appreciate your humanity.

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