Why and how humility makes you a better leader

by | Nov 10, 2018 | Blog | 0 comments

In Good-bye Swaggering CEOS; Hello Mr. Rogers, a recent Wall Street Journal article, Sam Walker wrote about how companies are showing a preference for hiring “unassuming chiefs to tamp down scandals, toxic cultures, and drama.”

Walker, a former reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal and now author of The Captain Class: A New Theory of Leadership, maintains that history suggests swagger has benefits.

Swagger should stay in the morgue of history.

Do you really think we need more aggressive and arrogant wolves, especially in our VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world?

After all, the work environment has greatly changed since the heyday of swaggering leaders who commanded and controlled. Consider these three seismic changes.

First, thanks to technology, we’re much more networked.  More people can access lots of information faster. As a result, work and power are distributed more throughout the organization rather than held tightly at the top.

Second, the workforce is more global and diverse. Employees have more varied experiences, backgrounds, and skills they contribute. They also hold different expectations for leaders.

Three, scientific research and advancements have made us much more knowledgeable about the brain and human behavior. For example, the brain’s number one job is to ensure our safety. We try to protect our security by overcoming our fears and defending our ego. If we’re to be open-minded, collaborative, and innovative at work, we need to feel safe and included, rather than excluded. Swaggering leaders tend to instill more fear—even if they’re admirable for their smarts, confidence, and style.

Today’s ecosystem is much more suited for well-socialized dogs, a la humble leaders. 

When you’re a humble leader, you’ve adopted “a mindset about oneself that is open-minded, self-accurate, and ‘not at all about me,’ and that enables one to embrace the world as it ‘is’ in the pursuit of human excellence,” explained authors Edward Hess and Katherine Ludwig in their 2017 book, Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age.

Furthermore, leaders with humility know they can’t know it all. They are comfortable with not knowing. They encourage constant learning, discovering, and connecting with others.

When you’re humble, you lead more like a gardener than a chess player or anyone else who gravitates toward a “winner take all game.” Humble leaders nurture – people and the organization, including its structure, processes, and culture.

Humble leaders are often modest, respectful of others. Consider the two MUSC (Medical University of South Carolina) nursing leaders who spoke at the “Blessing of the Animals” ceremony last month for the therapy dogs. (The MUSC Chaplain Rev. George Rossi is blessing Marcel in the photo above with my husband and me watching.)

The nurses explained that dogs provide a valuable service that the doctors and nurses can’t do on their own or with medicine. Dogs give patients a sense of home plus dogs deliver unconditional love, both of which help the healing process. What an inspiring message for us volunteers!

Now contrast this humble behavior with some of the actions of traditional leaders who swagger.  

For example, one CEO I worked for demanded that all company training programs start on Thursday or Friday and go through Saturday. He believed that employees had to devote weekend time to training to thank him for the opportunities and show their commitment to the company.

This CEO also insisted that “Employee effort doesn’t count. Only results make a difference.” That meant he actively discouraged leaders and managers for recognizing employees for their effort or small wins.

Both dogmas were demoralizing. Research now shows that these actions hurt rather than help performance. Humans aren’t machines; individuals need to rest and recharge, which isn’t easy to do if you’re in training half your weekend. And if your leaders aren’t encouraging and acknowledging you for trying the new behaviors they want you to do, it’s easy to shut down.

Also, remember the oldie but not goodie, “stack ranking”? It’s also known as “forced ranking” and “yank and rank,” which Jack Welch popularized. It pitted employees against one another. Research now shows that it’s healthier for individuals to compete against themselves, trying to improve their performance over time.

These actions and the leaders behind them can suck the oxygen and innovation out of the room, while continuing to uphold the masculinity contest culture, which is toxic for everyone.

The leaders’ role is to inspire others to excel while in pursuit of a worthy purpose.

We need more humble leaders who can put their ego aside and be comfortable and confident about engaging well with others.

When we all can see, listen and connect with each other, we can create more inclusive, collaborative and innovative cultures. That’s the best ecosystem for supporting and sustaining humans and their organizations to pursue their purpose.

Want to know more? Contact me.


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