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Humility: one attribute of a great leader

Modern leadership is different from the old-world image of people like Atilla the Hun and Genghis Khan. These were purported to be dictators who controlled their world with a tight fist. They supposedly were decision-makers of the first order.

At least, that’s the story we’re told. History may have become distorted over time. The picture changes again when we think of more recent examples of great leaders. People like Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King demonstrated far more humility. That’s the attribute I’d like to focus on here.

Leaders all need to strike a balance between their ego and humility. One must have a healthy ego to have the confidence to lead. People with emotional dysfunctions struggle to find this balance. Usually, their egos require too much maintenance to have the bandwidth for humility.

I can guess what you’re thinking. “Okay, Tom, why is humility so important for great leadership?” If I had to sum up the answer in one word (which I don’t), I’d say “empowerment.” The key to a modern organization is finding ways to activate the full potential of every mind available.

Pause to think about that. Imagine everyone in your organization having complete autonomy to carry out their duties in the best way they see fit -- unencumbered by excessive dictates from their “superiors.” If we’re being honest, the result could either be amazing or mass chaos. This is why empowerment alone isn’t enough. However, empowerment is the hardest thing to activate.

It’s hard because most employees these days are still humans. Humans, as I like to say, come with a full set of luggage. They’ve had emotional traumas, adverse life experiences, and a history of substandard leadership. All these and more cause people to be less likely to take risks.

Unfortunately, risks are at the very heart of any improvement initiative. Risk is also at the heart of any creative endeavor. Organizations pay homage to creativity and continuous improvement, but without fully engaged employees, there’s no activation behind the words.

Which brings us back to humility. The dictionary says humility is a modest or low view of one’s importance. In a business context, humility means:

  1. Not thinking that your ideas are always the best ones

  2. Acknowledging it publicly when you make mistakes

  3. Accepting that other people will make mistakes and that it’s okay as long as they are doing their best

  4. Not using the power of your position, even when it seems like the most straightforward option

  5. Listening and asking questions when you’d prefer to provide instructions

  6. Supporting others, even when they’re not supporting you

Humility can manifest in countless ways, but these six behavior patterns all have anti-patterns that lead to disempowerment. 

I have worked with countless leaders. The ones that stood out all had the right balance of ego and humility. One such leader, we’ll call him Eric because that’s his name, had a habit that I love. He would ask a question next whenever somebody said something he disagreed with. Rather than start by stating his disagreement, he began by trying to understand the source of it. 

His questions would ultimately lead to correcting the facts (either his or theirs) or pinpointing the specific assumption(s) around the disagreement. More often than not, this pattern results in eliminating the disagreement. When it doesn’t, it maintains respect between the parties and validates the legitimate difference.

Exchanges like this leave subordinates feeling like their ideas are worthy of consideration. In these situations, I ask myself, “If I let this person pursue their path, even though I don’t think it will work out, can we endure the potential downside?” If they want to take some existential risk, maybe it’s unfair to put that burden on them. But assuming that the risk is manageable, I am inclined to let them try it their way. One of two things will happen -- both good: I will be proven wrong, and things will work out well, or they will have a failure from which to learn.

Humble leaders open the door to more experiments. We use the word “experiments” at A2Agile a lot. We prefer it to “doing things a new way” because the possibility of failure gets embedded. Celebrating failure without shame accelerates the number and magnitude of experiments. 

As I mentioned above, this could lead to chaos. Coupled with alignment, collaboration, and short iteration cycles, humility delivers unimaginable power to accelerate progress and creativity.

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