A Call For Humility In Leadership

Post written by

Cha Tekeli

Cha is a results-oriented executive coach who helps sales leaders cultivate peak performance through a strengths approach. Chalamode, Inc.

We are living in an age where companies are in endless pursuit of “great leaders.” Businesses and thought leaders have made the distinction between managing and leading. It is the latter that remains elusive, like a unicorn that companies need to find and cultivate. Great leadership, it seems, has so many facets, so many potential variations, that what constitutes a great leader can’t be nailed down, let alone agreed upon.

In our ever-changing times, leaders need to be agile and responsive while thinking ahead. At the same time, they need to recognize that the furious pace is causing their employees to feel overwhelmed, stressed and burned out. So what enables great leaders to motivate and inspire their people, creating an engaged and productive workplace?

My view? It may be surprising. I believe humility is the trait that offers the most potential for great leadership because it offers an opportunity for different futures. Let me explain.

Power seems to favor the authoritative leader today: one who demonstrates more aggressive, dynamic, persuasive actions and behaviors. They are applauded for being bold, opinionated, decisive. Positive traits, to be sure, but they also have a downside.

Leaders like this often make quick decisions based on limited information. They don’t want to take a deep dive to examine the root of your problem. They don’t have the time to help you. They just expect you to do your job well — all the time. Often, these leaders push their own styles on you, expecting you to do things their way.

That’s a dangerous mix, and the result is not surprising: a disengaged workforce, living in fear, thinking they could lose their job at any time.

Humility, on the other hand, allows a great leader to put criticism aside, have an open mind and set about finding solutions. Without ego in the mix, their approach is more curious, less personal, less subjective and more open-minded toward new approaches.

My own experience with a humble leader changed the trajectory of my career. I was an untested but ambitious salesperson, challenged to close my first piece of business. After four months of not closing any prospects, I was unnerved and terrified I would lose my job.

Completely demoralized, I went to my publisher, prepared for the worst. What did this great leader do? Did he give me a “tough talk”? Did he threaten to take away my job? Did he tell me how he would have closed a sale?

None of the above. Instead, he assured me that he recognized my hard work and commitment. He said my personal convictions and values would pay off in time. We examined the meetings I flunked in detail: how the data I presented could be interpreted in other ways, how I could better prepare for objections in the future. Last, he invited me to go out with a seasoned sales pro to see another way of doing things. As a result, he gave me some of the best advice I ever received. I closed six accounts shortly afterward and, better still, found my perfect career. That is the gift that humility can generate.

A humble leader might be just what the doctor ordered for the burnout, exhaustion and unease that characterize too many workplaces today. In fact, research (registration required) has shown that humility can make a huge difference in creating a culture of true employee engagement. Consider what a humble leader brings to an organization:

• Humble leaders are more likely to appreciate different points of view. They do not subscribe to a my-way-or-the-highway approach.

• Humble leaders bring patience to the table, allowing employees time to pause and reflect on different approaches. That patience allows people to generate new ideas and communicate in different ways.

• Since self-interest is not a driving factor, humble leaders are more willing to give and share credit, creating an environment where employees feel acknowledged and supported.

• The humble leader fosters trust, something that is increasingly absent from corporations today. Instead of navigating corporate politics, employees feel that their feedback is welcomed and encouraged.

• Humble leaders are more likely to appreciate a diverse, multicultural team to give them a more holistic view.

Humble leaders do not profess to know it all, do not micromanage and are open to diverse points of view. That makes them perfect for leading successful, productive and happy teams that provide the emotional security employees need. Since they are not attached to personal outcomes, they more freely explore unique options that can result in different futures for their organizations. When they empower employees to seek and make decisions, it often results (registration required) in superior creativity and bottom-line results. Not getting stuck on a single point of view helps the humble leader take risks and pivot faster when needed, another crucial leadership skill.

To cultivate great leaders, companies should jettison their biases that louder and more aggressive leaders get the job done better. Recognizing and rewarding humility as a vital strength will not only result in happier, more engaged employees — it will uncover those elusive unicorns and great leadership that both businesses and employees are desperately looking for.

In the face of relentless change, the humble leader offers ease and grace, affording every workplace a different future characterized by inspiration, innovation, creativity, confidence and the quiet sound of harmony.

This article is dedicated to Fran Farrell, a former boss and publisher of mine and a paradigm of humility who has been my inspiration to try to be a humble person and leader.

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Cha is a results-oriented Executive Coach who helps leaders cultivate peak performance through a strengths approach.