Quint's Column: Leadership is about humility

Quint Studer

Great leadership is not always about being right. In fact, it rarely is.

 

The leader’s job is to bring out the best in employees and to engage them in working together to do what’s best for the company. This cannot happen when a leader is too attached to their own ideas or convinced that they are the smartest person in the room. That’s why humility is one of the most important traits a leader can have.

 

Let’s start by getting past the notion that humility is about being meek or submissive or thinking you aren’t good enough. It’s none of these things. We can take pride in our work and have confidence in our abilities and be humble. Humility is about seeing yourself as you truly are. We know our strengths and our weaknesses. When we’re good at something and we receive a compliment, we don’t deny it. When we make light of our skills, it can make others feel bad.  Instead we’re grateful that we’re in a position to help others develop that strength.

 

Leading with humility is about taking oneself out of the center of the equation, about keeping the spotlight on others. It’s about quieting the ego so we’re open to learning and focused on continuous improvement and growth.

 

Humble leaders don’t assume they have all the answers. They know that an inflated ego can cause them to make bad decisions and lead the team down the wrong path. Also, it can alienate employees rather than engaging them, create dependency rather than ownership, and promote individualism rather than teamwork. It can send the wrong message about learning — which is dangerous in a time when learning is the key to survival.

 

In a global economy where everything changes rapidly — marketplaces, competitors, consumer behavior, technology, etc. — organizations must be able to quickly shift in response. They must be great at innovating, problem-solving, and practicing all the other soft skills that are so important and valued. An openness to learning (in fact, a love of learning) is at the heart of all of this — and humility is at the heart of that.

 

In this arena, as in others, leaders must set the example for everyone else. When they’re constantly questioning and seeking new perspectives, new knowledge, and better ways to do things, others will follow their lead. Collaboration, teamwork, and innovation flow from there. This commitment to continuous learning is how your company gets better and better.

 

Humble leaders direct their focus outward. This gives them a situational awareness that serves the company well. When we intentionally focus on other people, we notice things we might not have seen otherwise. We pick up on body language and subtext. This allows us to see things others miss and helps us build stronger relationships.

 

Leading with humility means we don’t mind seeking the input of others before making decisions. This allows us to harness the intelligence of the entire team. In an incredibly complex world, there is no way one person can know it all.

 

It means we never push our self-interest over that of the group. We make hard decisions with everyone’s needs in mind, not just our own. We know that a rising tide lifts all boats.

 

Also, leading with humility means we don’t mind asking for help. Because humble leaders are well-liked and appreciated, we will receive it. People are much more likely to help those who don’t come across as know-it-alls or show-offs.

 

The challenge is we may not know what humility looks like in action. Next week I will share some tips on how to operationalize this key leadership trait. But the starting point is self-diagnosis. Could you have a humility problem? The first step to getting better is being aware that you may need to make some changes.  Hold up the mirror and ask yourself these questions:

 

— Are you constantly reminding the people around you of how great or talented you are?

 

— Are you concerned with what you “deserve”? Do you feel you should get special treatment because of your position or abilities?

 

— Do you find yourself name-dropping or talking about who you know to feel important?

 

— Do you require a lot of positive reinforcement? For instance, do you point out your own shortcomings as a way to fish for reassurance, or do you reject compliments when people offer them? When you know your own value, you don’t need to do this.

 

— Are you a perfectionist? Do you overreact to others’ mistakes? These can signal a lack of humility because they imply you believe you try harder than (and are better than) everyone else.

 

— Are you self-righteous? Do you find yourself judging others (often openly) and talking about how you would never do the things they do? 

 

— Do you take credit for things that were actually a team effort?

 

— Do you feel that menial tasks are beneath you?

 

— Are you inflexible, exhibiting a “my way or the highway” mentality?

 

— What are your motives? Do you go above and beyond because you value the success of the organization or do you do it to gain affirmation?

 

These questions can help you become aware of any red flags that may signal a lack of humility. Hopefully very few of them apply to you, but most of us have humility slip-ups from time to time. The key is to be aware of it and rein in the ego when it starts getting out of control.

 

I invite you to check in next week for some practical tips on leading with humility. As always, thank you for reading. I hope you have a pleasant (and humble) weekend.

 

 

 

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