What comes to mind when you picture the archetype of a leader? Is it a brash and enterprising executive like Richard Branson? A perfection-driven controller like Steve Jobs? The truth is that many of the best leaders are nothing like the stereotypes that usually come to mind. Instead, some of the most effective leaders replace brashness and boldness with deep focus and humble dedication to improvement.
As American Congressman Pete Hoekstra put it, “Real leadership is leaders recognizing that they serve the people that they lead.” The best leaders are not managers. They’re not bosses. They are often empathetic and driven servants who empower the people they lead.
So just what is it about humility that makes it such a pivotal characteristic in leaders? Here are just a few reasons humility is so key:
It fosters an environment of learning and improvement
“Leadership is the art of giving people a platform for spreading ideas that work.” — Seth Godin
One of the most crucial roles of a leader in business is to teach employees, helping them gain new skills and become more proficient at their jobs. This leads to better results, better client retention, and, often, better employee retention. It also helps keep the company’s talent pool stocked, saving the company money on recruiting outside talent to fill management positions.
How does this humble fostering of learning and growth look in practice? Laszlo Bock, Google’s SVP of People Operations explained it this way: “Your end goal is what can we do together to problem-solve. I’ve contributed my piece, and then I step back.” Humble leaders shift the load from their own shoulders, allowing their employees to grow and improve by taking on more responsibility themselves.
It’s easier to follow a humble leader
“Not the cry, but the flight of a wild duck, leads the flock to fly and follow.” – Chinese Proverb
Brash, outspoken, and arrogant leaders (which many have begun to consider as the prototype for a “leader” in business) often become severely disconnected from their employees. They are often viewed as out of touch with the day to day rigmarole and therefore unaware of the needs of workers (whether this is true or not.)
“The best managers are those who have an intimate knowledge of the needs of both their customers and their employees,” says Kevin Brogan, Vice President of Meadows Casino, a Pittsburgh casino currently seeing record revenue. These humble leaders are in tune with their teams and are often the most well-liked of leaders. They also tend to exhibit some of the same characteristics pointed out by former U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt, who famously said, “The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint to keep from meddling with them while they do it.”
Humble leaders are more transparent
“A good leader takes a little more than his share of the blame, a little less than his share of the credit.” — Arnold Glasow
One of the top trends in employee engagement right now is the growing popularity of transparency in business. In fact, research has shown a surprisingly high correlation between level of employee happiness and how highly they rate their company’s level of transparency.
Transparency can manifest itself in a number of ways (like Buffer’s transparent pricing undertaking,) but it often boils down to a willingness to share the good along with the bad. “I don’t mean that people need to be willing to fall on a sword,” Arron Grow, author of How to Not Suck as a Manager. “But we should own up to what we do. Sometimes it’s good to share that with others—that we’re not infallible.”
Humble leadership empowers others
“The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.” Ronald Reagan
Empowering others not only goes hand in hand with great leadership, it’s been said that empowering others is great leadership. And humble leaders do it as well as anyone. In fact, a study found that CEO humility was positively associated with empowering leadership in employees. In other words, humble CEOs have more empowered employees.
The leaders of the study went on to explain, “Humble people willingly seek accurate self-knowledge and accept their imperfections while remaining fully aware of their talents and abilities. They appreciate others’ positive worth, strengths, and contributions and thus have no need for entitlement or dominance over others.”
It’s what your employees are looking for
“A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” — Lao Tzu
The real power of humble leadership is the fact that, by and large, it’s the type of leadership employees are looking for. It keeps them from being micromanaged, it allows them to learn, it clues them into the inner workings of the company, and it inspires them to become leaders themselves. As Rob Nielsen, co-author of Leading with Humility put it, “When people are demonstrating (certain) behaviors—self-awareness, perspective, openness to feedback and ideas, and appreciation of others—employees are saying: ‘Yes I’m happier in my job; I actually can perform at a higher level.’ There is an association between the humble leadership behaviors and those outcomes.”
If you’re struggling with your results as a leader, it may be time to take a look in the mirror and determine which of these characteristics you might be missing. As Bill Gates said, “As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.” Humble leaders do exactly that.
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