Leader Humility Is Teachable
Dr. Marilyn Gist
We’re increasingly seeing that leader humility is vital for organizational success. Researcher and author Jim Collins has shown that, when coupled with a drive for results, leaders’ humility explains why organizations become great.
That statement might sound counterintuitive, but humility isn’t meekness or weakness. Rather, it’s a tendency to feel and display a deep regard for others’ dignity. In my extensive interviews with chief executive officers of highly successful organizations, including Costco, the Mayo Clinic, REI and Starbucks, it’s clear that leaders can be strong and have high standards — while respecting others’ sense of self-worth.
In contrast, leaders who have a strong drive yet lack humility can be toxic. Arrogant and ego-driven leaders frequently damage others’ dignity. As a result, trust and collaboration suffer.
So, an important question is: Can leaders learn to have humility or improve their current level of humility?
Yes. When humility is defined behaviorally, we can frame it as an interpersonal skill. And, like other interpersonal skills, it can be learned — within reason. But there are several things to consider.
Two Prerequisites to Developing Leader Humility
One reason “people skills” are difficult to teach is that they require trainees to have a fairly objective self-awareness. Learners need to understand what the desired behavior looks like and then self-monitor and adjust until new patterns become habits.
When self-awareness is strong, this learning is possible. However, some people are so lacking in self-awareness that they can’t see how they come across to others. As a result, they aren’t able to calibrate the difference between current and desired behaviors.
So, realistic self-awareness is the first prerequisite to learning leader humility.
A second prerequisite is choice or will. Some people want to learn a given skill, and others don’t. Just like cognitive learning, breaking old behavioral patterns takes time and effort. If a leader isn’t interested in devoting the time or doesn’t recognize the potential benefit, he or she is unlikely to learn.
Assuming both prerequisites exist — solid self-awareness and willingness to learn — leader humility is teachable. Leadership trainers should address both content and methods, as described below.
Training Content: Six Keys to Leader Humility
People consider three questions when working with leaders:
- Who are you?
- Where are we going?
- Do you see me?
Leaders’ behavior, from their words to their actions, answers those questions.
Can leaders learn to have humility or improve their current level of humility?
The following six keys, or sets of behaviors, are essential for leader humility. A program designed to teach leader humility should emphasize these keys and clarify behaviors that demonstrate each of them:
1. A Balanced Ego
Leader humility involves confidence. It falls between meekness and arrogance, allowing leaders to appreciate their own accomplishments, goals and concerns — and those of others. Leaders with a balanced ego avoid boasting, blame and intimidation. They take responsibility and show gratitude.
2. Robust Integrity
Having strong moral principles shows respect for the dignity of others. Leaders who do the right thing sometimes make difficult choices. As stakeholders observe them doing so, it increases their trust in them, because they want to be treated the right way, too.
3. A Compelling Vision
Leaders show humility when they develop a vision that serve the common good: the good of all stakeholders. Visions that advance business goals by harming others show disregard for dignity. Humble leaders listen to the different needs around them and find ways to integrate them into a unified direction.
4. Ethical Strategies
Equally importantly, the path leaders take to achieve goals should be ethical. Respecting laws, customers and competitors, for example, shows humility.
5. Generous Inclusion
Often, we talk about inclusion when discussing issues of diversity, but its implication is broader. Leaders should practice generous inclusion whenever they are considering issues and making decisions that will deeply affect others. Especially when they may have a strong or negative reaction to what a leader decides, people should be included in discussions and genuinely heard.
6. Developmental Focus
Some leaders are transactional, in that they view employees or customers as performing an exchange: work for pay or goods or services purchased for a price. Leaders with humility, on the other hand, show concern for stakeholders’ long-term interests. For example, they may help employees gain the skills they need to advance or connect a client with someone else who may purchase from them. This type of leadership supports the dignity of others.
Training Methods for Leader Humility
Improving leader humility may require short- or long-term intervention, depending on the individual. Here are a few recommendations:
For people who are modestly in need of improvement, a workshop structure may be helpful. The workshop should present evidence of how leader humility improves organizational culture and performance and describe the six keys to leader humility, while providing clear behavioral guidelines (i.e., dos and don’ts). Ideally, trainees should receive feedback on how others see them and as well as clear guidance on what to improve.
Many organizations provide longform programs for leadership development. They may last for months, a year or longer, and they typically involve periodic meetings interspersed with experiential assignments, reflection, assessment and feedback. This type of design is ideal for developing leader humility. You can integrate it into the overall curriculum, monitor it and develop it over time.
For isolated cases, or for leaders who are very serious about becoming more humble, coaching can help individuals who have the prerequisites for learning. If the coach has expertise in developing humility in leaders, a one-on-one engagement for several sessions can be appropriate.
There is now is ample evidence that leader humility, coupled with a strong drive, generates the best organizational performance. The time is ripe for organizations to select leaders who have humility and to train those who need further development in this crucial skill set.
Coaching can help individuals who have the prerequisites for learning.