Leading with Character: Humility

February 27, 2016
Mike Stallard

Definition of Humility

Humility is defined as letting one’s own accomplishments speak for themselves; not seeking the spotlight; not regarding oneself as more special than one is.

Humility in Leadership: Servant Leaders

Research has shown that leaders of successful organizations possess humility. Truly great leaders, those we refer to as “Servant Leaders,” are focused on the mission and on the people they lead rather than on building their own reputation. They are focused on the end goal rather than wasting energy trying to make others think of them as being great.

The humility of Servant Leaders should not be confused with weakness.  Servant Leaders possess humility because they have developed self-awareness from reflecting on their lives. They have “the courage of their convictions;” in other words, they know who they are and what they believe in. They also recognize their own limitations and blind spots.

Because of the Servant Leaders’ humility and self-awareness, they have an authenticity that people sense when interacting with them. It also helps them see that they can’t do everything by themselves and know that they need others in order to succeed. Building on this awareness, they tap into the skills, knowledge and abilities of others to strengthen the overall team. Servant Leaders truly appreciate other people’s contributions to the team and they value them as human “beings.”  They mentor and coach the people they lead to help them grow professionally and personally.

Because Servant Leaders possess humility, they know that no one has all the answers or a monopoly on good ideas so they encourage others to express their ideas and opinions, and they consider what others say. This makes them more informed and better decision-makers.

Because of the humility, self-awareness and authenticity of Servant Leaders, people naturally feel more connected to them. Those of us who have worked with this type of leader can attest to the fact that when we feel connected to our leaders, we are more likely to follow them, to give our best efforts and to align our behavior with organizational goals. This connection is what distinguishes a leader who leads with formal authority from a leader who leads with influence. All leaders have formal authority but only Servant Leaders have influence that moves people to want to follow them.

Examples of Humility in Action

Jet Blue Airlines Founder and former CEO David Neeleman spent one day each week flying on Jet Blue planes, working alongside his crew serving passengers drinks and snacks and cleaning airplanes between flights. By doing this, Neeleman showed his humility and that work he was expecting others to do well was not beneath him. Result: The word spread about Neeleman’s leadership and helped Jet Blue become employer of choice. Two years after Jet Blue was founded, it was growing so fast it needed to hire 2,000 new employees. The company received an astounding 130,000 applications!

Intel Corporation’s former CEO Andrew Grove liked to encourage employees to speak up if they saw emerging opportunities or threats. He called employees “Helpful Cassandras” because, like the legendary priestess Cassandra who foretold the fall of Troy, these employees could help Intel navigate the future. The advice of three Helpful Cassandras persuaded Grove to shift Intel into the microprocessor business and to leave the memory chip business. Result: According to Grove, advice from employees helped him make the decision that contributed to Intel becoming larger than its next three competitors combined.  Today, “Intel Inside” appears in most computers.

Five Actions You Can Take to Develop Humility as a Leader

  1. You have two ears and one mouth so listen twice as much as you speak. This will ensure that you provide those around you an opportunity to share their ideas and feel heard, and also provide you an opportunity to glean some great ideas from your team.
  2. It’s okay to say to people that they are right or that you’ve made a mistake.  Everyone makes mistakes. One measure of your success is how well you recover from mistakes. Let your team know you’re human, you don’t have all the answers and you will partner with them to solve problems as a team.
  3. Specifically ask the team for feedback on your performance, and be open to the honest feedback you receive. Ask the team how you are doing, what they would change, and what opportunities they see for you to improve. You’ll gain a great deal of insight from these conversations and show your openness to their input.
  4. Recognize people on your team for their contributions to the team’s success.  This can be as simple as an email to the team highlighting a “win,” holding a quick huddle with the team to recognize positive feedback from a stakeholder, or sending an email to your boss and CC-ing the employee to let him or her know you’re giving credit where credit is due.
  5. When you have a task to do that’s not a good fit with your strengths, ask for help from one of your team members who has the right skills and strengths to do the task well. Be sure to let him or her know that you recognize his or her strength in this area and that you need help because it is not a strength of yours.

More From Michael Lee Stallard

Can Aetna’s “Servant Leader” CEO Mark Bertolini Transform Healthcare?

Closing Your Company’s Leadership Gap

How Leaders Can Guard Against Unethical Behavior

Michael Lee Stallard, MBA, JD, is a thought leader, speaker and leading expert on how human connection in workplace cultures affects the health and performance of individuals and organizations. In addition to Fired Up or Burned Out, he is the primary author of Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Steve Wilson under Creative Commons license Attribution 2.0 Generic. Image has been cropped. 

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