Humility Helps Leaders
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Humility Helps Leaders

Jun 15, 2023


In today’s fast-changing business environment, it’s especially apparent that no one in a company, not even the CEO, has all the answers. Just look at all the public discussion about getting employees to return to the office. In an irony that’s not lost on anyone who used Zoom’s video conferencing capabilities during the pandemic, the company’s CEO, Eric Yuan, has asked employees to come back to the office two days a week, according to Insider. Using the “carrot” approach, Google’s Sundar Pichai apparently backed a plan to lure people back to the Mountain View campus by offering below-market rates at its hotel on site. Using a “stick” tactic, Amazon is tracking and penalizing employees who work from home too much, according to The Guardian.

No one, not even these CEOs, knows how to get people back into the office. This is just one example where leaders need to be open and willing to learn from others, one of the key components of humility, according to Dr. Franziska Frank, author of The Power of Humility in Leadership, Influencing as a Role Model.

For some in the working world, the term “humble leader” seems like an oxymoron. Many CEOs still lead with an authoritarian style and rely on hierarchy. Bosses are recognized for charisma or vision, and hubris is often rewarded on social media. But research over the past decade or so has shown that humility is a key quality of leaders who are able to motivate employees to deliver strong performance. Bradley Owens, Professor of Business Ethics at Brigham Young University led research that showed teams with leaders ranked as more humble performed better. Research led by Amy Ou at the National University of Singapore had similar results. Given the increasing emphasis on wellness post-pandemic, the fact that humble leadership has been shown to improve well being is also key. Lots has been written on humble leadership, but I turned to Dr Frank to get her take on it because she has done extensive research and recently integrated it into the existing canon on knowledge in a book that Adam Grant said “makes a convincing case that humility in leadership is a source of strength and not a sign of weakness”. She summarizes that humility benefits the entire ecosystem of a company. “Employees perform better, are more innovative and resilient, have improved client relationships and better morale. The organization can be more strategic and builds a culture of being accountable. The managers themselves are less stressed, build better relationships with their teams, and tend to show greater leadership potential.” Note that humble leaders can still be competitive and ambitious.

So what is humble leadership?

While dictionary definitions of humility tend to focus on not being proud (Cambridge) and “freedom from arrogance” (Merriam-Webster)modern business literature outlines four key pillars of humility:

-Awareness of one’s own strengths and weaknesses

-Eagerness to improve and learn

-Appreciation of others’ strengths and contributions

-Focus on goals beyond one’s self-interest, due to being a small and easily replaceable part of the greater whole.

Are there a lot of humble leaders out there? Dr Frank conducted research with over 3500 managers in the past three years. She uncovered that more than 95 percent of employees want a humble leader and more than 97 percent of managers wish to be one. But she notes there is a dangerous gap - 80 percent of managers worldwide already see themselves as humble yet only a meager 36 percent of employees agree.

How can the gap be closed? Since most employees desire a humble leader but don’t think they have one and a majority of managers believe they already are one, what’s to be done? The good news, according to Dr Frank, is that humility is learnable. She outlined 4 steps to becoming a humble leader.

1. Ensure you know your strengths and weaknesses and practice showing them

Get regular feedback from your team - either in meetings where everyone can share open and direct feedback, via 360 degree feedback forms, or via apps like Onloop. Coaches can also provide helpful input on strengths and weaknesses. For example, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt explained, "Every famous athlete, every famous actor has a coach, someone who can watch what they're doing and follow up: 'Is this really what you wanted?"

Share your strengths and weaknesses with your team. Satya Nadella shared a weaknesss when he wrote an email to the whole company pointing out how he had messed up when talking about womens’ salaries at a conference in 2014. . No need, though, to tell people you can’t focus when you’re at home even though you are laser-like focused while in the office.

Identify areas where someone else’s skills can complement yours and ask for help. People who ask for advice are considered competent and give the person being asked a sense of accomplishment.

It is also important to show strengths. For example, Dr Frank says it was humble when, in introducing himself to the other leaders the new CIO said: ““I am not your slave. IT has to be on par with business.” The CIO reported that his people were shocked, since no CIO had ever spoken that clearly. But in his view he had to position himself strongly for the sake of the department and the greater whole.

2. Be willing to learn.

Lifelong learning is a key part of having a growth mindset, the belief that your talents and abilities can be further developed—and the will to actively seek new opportunities to learn (to read more about your learning quotient, read a previous column on this topic) Don’t underestimate or sabotage yourself. Dr Frank notes that although everyone in her seminars insists that they are open to learning (“All hands shoot up!”), only 41% believe they can learn charisma and only 50% believe that anyone can become a great manager. Beware of hidden fixed mindsets like these that impact how you see yourself and others. The test? Wherever you say to yourself: “No way, will I ever/or X ever be able to do x,y or z.”

3. Show your appreciation of your colleagues.

Dr Frank notes that neuroscientists discovered that our brains are less perceptive downwards in a hierarchy - so train yourself to truly see what others do and deliver. Give clear and concrete feedback to peers, employees, and even bosses (yes, they are people, too!) about how and when they have helped you (when they truly have, don’t be obsequious). Some companies have programs that assist with this, such as peer bonuses at Google, global shoutouts at Cloudflare, and the kudos hall of fame at MediaCorp. Even if your company does not, you can send a quick note to the colleague, perhaps even copying their boss.

4. Keep the bigger picture in mind.

First, says Dr Frank, “see how much bigger the world is and how much depends on others, luck and circumstances. How many thousands of people built the brand of your company? How much of your success is due to the fact that you were born at the right time to the right parents in the right country?. Does the team manage while you’re on vacation? In most cases it does, because none of us is indispensable

Can you help your group /division/company achieve more than it would without you? Dr. Frank quotes a CEO who understood about true empowerment for the bigger picture: “It depends on the role the CEO choses. If he or she is the sole decider – with nearly everything going across their desk, there will be far less impact than if the CEO primarily sets direction and allows subordinates to act and decide within defined parameters”. Second,take responsibility.. For example do not blame your employees for lack of innovation if you keep on asking for lowering costs. Or like Paul Anderson, former CEO of BHP, understand that if you want safety you should not just ask about it, but role model it, as well (for example, start wearing a helmet when you ride your Harley-Davidson, and stop speeding in the company parking lot).

Dr Frank summarizes that becoming a humble leader relieves some of the management burden by absolving you of having to know everything and enabling you to achieve your goals via motivated employees.

To start the humble leadership journey now, get a baseline measure of your humility level, by asking your team today. Or you can take the assessment at the end of one of Dr. Frank’s blogs.

So what is humble leadership?Are there a lot of humble leaders out there? How can the gap be closed? 1. Ensure you know your strengths and weaknesses and practice showing them 2. Be willing to learn. 3. Show your appreciation of your colleagues.4. Keep the bigger picture in mind.