“Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”
─── C. S. Lewis
Whenever the topic of leadership and humility comes up, this is the quote I immediately turn to. And while this idea can certainly stir some inspiring emotion in us when we talk about it, it is also easy to do just that…merely talk about it. Our lives are undoubtedly checkered with plenty of experiences involving selfish, self-centered, and arrogant leaders.
To be transformational, to be leaders of character, and to develop other leaders, we must be humble leaders. This does not mean being weak or timid. It’s exactly like C. S. Lewis states above – how can I think less about myself as the formal leader and more about my people in every situation I can. This type of thinking and style is proving more necessary in 21st century leadership. We need to lead through teams of teams, where we likely don’t have all the information and we are likely not the most skilled person in the group in many different ways. We must create engaged teams where we can solicit diversity of thought and ideas up, down, and across the team.
This is best enabled by humble leaders.
The Impact of Leader Humility
By being leaders founded in humility, we create opportunity for a number of important developments within our people and teams:
- We demonstrate a genuine care for other people: Through that, we earn their trust. As John Maxwell says, “people buy into the leader, then into the vision.” By being people-oriented, we help others realize their value on the team, we can more effectively earn their trust, and ultimately enable our people to fully buy in to the team’s purpose and mission.
- We create leadership space for others: Making things less about us, we allow others to fill leadership space and capacity on the team, which is important for leader and team development.
- Foster high team engagement and diversity of thought across the team: We promote and acknowledge others’ great ideas, we create a collaborative culture and environment on the team, and nurture psychological safety within the team.
- It’s a mechanism for integrity: We remain aligned to our values and what we know to be right as leaders of character.
- It helps us recognize our flaws: Humble leaders know they still have lots to learn and experience; they know they have flaws and needs for growth. Humility enables leaders to be secure in seeing that and willing to commit to continuous self-improvement. This also helps role-model humility for others as well.
How to Practice & Develop Humility
Again, it can be easy to talk about humble leadership, but it’s another thing to practice, develop, and demonstrate it each day. Here are some personal recommendations on how we can all work on improving our humility as leaders:
- Seek role models and mentors: Other leaders that demonstrate leader humility, we respect, and have more experience than we do can be great ways to improve our perspectives and commitment to humble leadership.
- Seek 360 feedback: Our teams may have some formal feedback loops to provide assessment on performance, but those tend to be top-down (boss feedback to subordinate) only. Some teams may have 360 feedback assessments. But many of us likely have insufficient feedback loops in our lives to help make us more self-aware of our tendencies and flaws. We must create opportunities to receive more feedback and we must ensure we are pulling that up, down, and across the team to get the full picture.
- Deliberately express gratitude: Unexpressed gratitude or appreciation does nothing. Our people need to know their efforts are recognized and valued. We need to demonstrate gratitude across the team. This is a great way to make things less about us, but it also builds a positive and encouraging climate across the team. Learn more about leadership gratitude here.
- Admit your mistakes or that you don’t know: These don’t have to be major dramatic scenes. But acknowledging your mistakes or that you don’t know something can create space for others to step up. It also helps ensure the team gets the issue right, not just what the boss wants.
- Let people teach you something: We may not know everything as leaders, but that doesn’t mean we don’t keep learning. By letting our people teach us something, we learn, but we also create an opportunity for them to demonstrate their skills, thus feel like valued and important members on the team.
- Maintain a “one big thing”: Self-improvement and learning is life-long. We all have the next “one big thing” (OBT) that we need to work on to improve our leader impact. We should always have an OBT that we are committed to. Further, by making our OBT public within our team, it provides improved accountability toward that goal. Learn more about creating our “one big thing” here.
- Do something for someone that does not also benefit the team: Sometimes, the most important thing a leader can do is for another person that has no benefit to the team or the goal. Helping others in their personal pursuits or work through issues can have impacts that we will never know or see. This can be as small as something like writing a letter of recommendation for an application. If someone asks for help, I can’t help but think, “who am I to say no?”
An Ending Challenge: The Humble Narcissist
While I state that humble leadership does not mean being weak or timid, it may still be easy for many to consider humble leaders being pushovers.
I encourage you to check out Adam Grant’s TED article, Tapping into the power of humble narcissism. In it, his research argues that strictly humble leaders (nor narcissists obviously) are not the most effective, but “humble narcissists.” He asserts that “humble narcissists have grand ambitions, but they don’t feel entitled to them. They don’t deny their weaknesses; they work to overcome them.”
Must we be humble? Absolutely. But we must also inspire others and drive our team’s ambitions. So, we must bring the best of both in an effective and healthy balance. I challenge you to think on how you can do that in your authentic way.
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