When we try to characterize great leadership we might be inclined to use words like influential, assertive or visionary. Intuitively, most believe that these types of personality characteristics are the most necessary for credible and effective leadership. But as I often discover in my work with organizations, the “followers” of leaders look to other qualities. One of the most often cited of these is the seeming antithesis of credibility – humility.
Is humility – the ability to admit shortcomings, to be unpretentious and modest – a quality you would normally think of when characterizing a great leader? Possibly not, but employees are consistently dismayed by leaders who do not solicit the views of others “below” them and who always think that they are right. Of course, know-it-all leaders never hear of this. The very nature of an immodest leader would prevent employees from voicing this view, as standing up and telling the boss their wrong is still (even in our enlightenment) seen as career limiting. Even if someone did have the chutzpah to challenge an arrogant boss, they would have trouble hearing it as something they could learn from or even as a viable perspective. But rest assure, you will get more input, initiative and loyalty from leadership which openly admits that they don’t have the answers than from that which shuts down alternative views and projects constant greatness.
While working on a succession plan for a mid-sized manufacturing organization, I conducted interviews with employees, as well as mid level and senior management. I wanted to get an idea of what great leadership has been like in the organization so they can develop junior employees for more senior roles in the future. I expected that the most frequently cited and highest ranking qualities would be those which spoke to decisiveness, having the answers and great influence. While the notion of influence was highlighted by many, the preferred and most effective route was through humility.
Employees discussed stories of great, inspirational leadership as being characterized by actions like not being afraid to do the grunt work, admitting that they may not have all the answers and being open to the views of others. While to some, establishing leadership credibility means never (or at least infrequently) backing down, employees at this gritty manufacturing plant did not see it that way.
In fact, in my experience across many organizations, employees at every level prefer leadership that is seen as fair and equitable and this cannot be realized without some level of humility. This notion is particularly important in organizations which are struggling with attracting and retaining great, new talent. In these contexts we certainly want to have talent that looks to leaders’ experience for guidance and learning. But leadership which is seen as know-it-all, stubborn, closed and arrogant constantly turns people off. I mean, does anyone really want this kind of leader? Don’t we want a balance between learning from others and offering one’s own view? Is this balance not the place where we hone the skills of potential leaders? The good news is that the notion of humble leadership is alive in a number of organizations, but some leaders have been slow on the uptake.
In a business environment that sings the praises of knowledge management, learning and growth we are certainly ready to learn from people at all points in an organization, not just from the top. We may need to take a page from the wisdom of (some) parenting experiences which remind us of how much we have to learn about ourselves and the world from those who we might otherwise step over as too young or inexperienced.