Humble leaders are better leaders.
That’s the conclusion of the Harvard Business Review article from Jeanine Prime and Elizabeth Salib. In their article, they cite a 2014 study, which concluded that employees who observed altruistic or selfless and humble behaviors in their managers reported feeling more included in their work teams and thus were more innovative, collaborative, and committed to team goals and outcomes. In short, humble leaders bring out the best in their people, and rally them to perform collectively as more than the sum of their parts. Who wouldn’t want more of that?
But what is humility? And why is it helpful? And, if it’s beneficial for leaders, how do we practice it?
All great questions and we’ll take the remainder of this article to consider some answers.
Defining Humble Leadership
First, let’s get down and dirty with humility — literally! “Humility” comes from the Latin word for earth or dirt: “humus.” We’ve kept this idea of humility in some of our colloquialisms. We might say that someone “keeps her feet-on-the-ground” or that they’re “well-grounded.”
But don’t take that ground/earth image too far. Because humility is not about crawling around in the dust and it’s not simply the opposite of arrogance or the same as meekness or self-effacement. Humility is the work of staying in the middle between the two extremes, the art of taking up the right amount of space for your place.
Practically, a humble leader is one who accurately recognizes their strengths, openly admits mistakes, authentically invites feedback, recognizes limitations, and freely expresses thanks.
Why This Type of Humility Works for Leaders
Now that we’ve got a working definition for humility, let’s explore three reasons why it boosts our leadership:
- Humble leaders are always looking for ways to improve and get better. Think about it: if you’re going to learn something, you have to first admit at some level that there are things you don’t know. If you’re going to grow, you have to admit that you have room to grow! And this dynamic has a multiplying effect to it, because the people you lead are going to see this simultaneous humility/growth relationship and take it up for themselves. While growth and change are never easy, the foundation of successful learning begins with an authentic spirit of humility.
- Humility is the basis of flexibility in leadership. Let’s say that you have a plan for carrying out a project with your team. We’ll call this “Plan A.” But then circumstances change or there was a problem with carrying out your plan. Do you stick to “Plan A” even though it’s not going to work correctly, or do you move to create “Plan B?” This can be a struggle, because the lizard brain has a desperate need to be seen as right. But admitting to being fallible allows leaders to shift gears and move in a more productive direction when necessary.
- Humble leaders tend to be more decisive thinkers. Remember our definition of humility? It’s not just about our weaknesses; it’s about recognizing our strengths as well and artfully balancing the two. So a healthy sense of confidence allows leaders to stay the course even through rough seas, knowing that great success lies on the other side of the storm. Humble leaders are decisive because they are aware of what they don’t know and are willing to admit being wrong. This allows them to trust their decision-making processes as they lead.
Three Humble Leadership Behaviors to Adopt Now:
- Practice admitting limitations of your knowledge. Start by making a list six to eight topics you know nothing about (e.g. genetic mutations or 9th Century Mongolian cooking). You don’t have to broadcast this list if you don’t want, but simply writing a list that you can see allows you to begin practicing humility.
- Ask for feedback from others. This can be really daunting, but getting feedback from others allows you to check your strengths and weaknesses from multiple perspectives. If you need a structured way to do this, 360 evaluations are good for workplace scenarios and Rewire offers those assessments. But also make sure you check in with the people who are most honest in your life: your family. Take time to ask them “how am I doing?” as a parent, spouse, child or sibling.
- Give thanks and express gratitude. Remember that humility is about artfully navigating the space between arrogance and self-effacement. And gratitude is a great way to do this. Arrogance is a posture of entitlement that essentially rules out gratitude or thankfulness. Conversely, self-effacement is a posture of constant unworthiness that may not move us to recognizing the active role that our work asks us to take. Healthy humility resides in gratitude for all of the many blessings (mundane and grand) of life. Take time every day to thank people for their efforts on your behalf. Make a point of saying a meaningful “thank you” to at least three people a day.
I’d love to hear some of your “humble leadership” best practices. What’s worked for you? Drop me a line or leave a comment in the comments section.