The Humble Leader: practical tips to make you an effective leader by employing humility

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I truly believe humility is core to being an effective leader. In being humble you can be more effective at empowerment, pursuing and creating success in those around you and adapting to the changing world, people, organisations and projects. Of course, you will need more than humility to be effective but it is at the heart of leadership. I have previously talked about why it is one of the most vital traits to being an effective leader in this post and also in this video.

I believe there is a big stigma that exists on humility in leadership as most people think of you as a walkover – they think you are weak. I believe humility is strength and is vital to anyone who wants to be an effective and successful leader. Here is a good definition I found from a post by Karl Albrecht Ph.D. on Psychology Today:

“Humility is about emotional neutrality. It involves an experience of growth in which you no longer need to put yourself above others, but you don’t put yourself below them, either. Everyone is your peer – from the most “important” person to the least. You’re just as valuable as every other human being on the planet, no more and no less. It’s about behaving and reacting from purposes, not emotions. You learn to simply disconnect or de-program the competitive reflex in situations where it’s not productive.”

I love this definition. A lot of leaders I have met believe they are the most important person in the room. They tend to value themselves above others. Their needs above the needs of others. Their success above the needs of others. This kind of leader will lead people who hate coming to work, who don’t feel valued, who don’t grow and succeed and will push many away to other organisations. If you are someone who has a growth mindset and you want to improve and get better you need to seek out humility.

Becoming more humble is extremely difficult. In fact, I still remember a moment in my childhood when I realised I was putting my needs above someone else and then letting go of my need and putting their need first. It is a simple example. When I was 14, I would be the first one home from school and the first thing I would do is switch on the TV to watch my favourite show at the same time every day and every week (it wasn’t available on demand via Netflix back then). One day, my brother came home just after me and came into the room and asked to watch the football. I found watching football quite boring at that age so it would have been easy to say no. I had the controller and controlled the TV and everyone knew this is what I did every day at the same time. It was my time with the TV, my turn to watch. Me, me, me. Then, I just let go. I said OK. I realised I am no more important than he is. My need to watch my show is no more important than his need and desire to watch football. I can share. I can bring him joy by sacrificing something I want to do and let him do what he wants to do. What is truly sad here is that I truly felt it in my heart, an ache, just for letting go of the TV. Later that afternoon after the first half, he asked if I wanted to watch the TV. He was grateful and he recognised my sacrifice.

In the context of being a leader, you will face many situations where you will find it difficult to be humble. You will have an idea that you believe is so awesome and so fantastic and so perfect that no amount of feedback can be taken in to “improve” it – why does it need to be improved? You will have an opportunity to take credit and say “I did this amazing thing” and leave others out of the equation – if I am the leader surely the success of the project is because of me? You will have a disagreement with someone and you will not be willing to compromise or let it go for greater value – instead, you will choose a destructive path – I am older, wiser, smarter than them so why don’t they drop it? You will do what makes you feel good and happy with yourself – if doing this makes me happy, why wouldn’t it make them happy? It is so hard to take the humble path in these situations. It is difficult to be less “you” focused and mother “other” focused. The good news is, it is something you can become better at.

1. Get feedback and act on it

Don Emerson Davis Jr., Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Georgia State University that a key concept to becoming more humble is acknowledging and working on your weaknesses. This in itself takes humility because you have to accept that there is room to improve – you aren’t the finished deal. You need to have a growth mindset. Improvement is possible.

“You’ve never arrived. You’re always becoming” – JJ Redick

Seeking out feedback is a good way to start out on your journey to humility but you don’t just need to seek it, you need to acknowledge it and do something about it. I have candid feedback sessions with team members at work and I always look to follow up. You told me I didn’t do this well last time we talked, here is the evidence that I have tried to change that behaviour – I may have failed to change but I am still trying. This is so difficult, and that is OK – start small and build it up. The first time you take on and accept criticism it can really hurt but you need to try and think of it in another way. Reframe the feedback. By someone giving you feedback, they are trying to help you be better. They are taking an interest in your success and by asking for feedback – you are taking an interest in your own success and giving them an opportunity to contribute.

Seek feedback on your ideas, plans, strategies, deliverables, presentations, leadership style and everything you can. The more data you have the more you can do with it, but again start small and build it up. Instead of starting your meetings with a solution ask a question – open up the conversation to an expression of different views and ideas.

“Humility creates more oxygen in the room. It allows for others to participate and come together and make a change. If you think you already know everything or act like you do, other people will check out, and things won’t get done as quickly or as well.” – Paul Shoemaker

2. Confront prejudice and have an open mind

Prejudice: an unfavourable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought, or reason.

There will always be certain things that you have an unfavourable opinion about in which you have a lack of knowledge or experience. To be an effective and more humble leader you need to be able to set your prejudices to one side. A prejudice might be something you grasped at school, from your friends, your culture or your parents. One example of this is that my mum believing that all white people in the UK were Christians. It is not correct, it wasn’t based on evidence or experience and yet she still believed it at one point. The thing is, you probably don’t even know you have these prejudices. You will strongly disagree with someone based on a prejudice rather than solid evidence and knowledge. A lot of people I know have got a prejudice that women are worse drivers than men. However, if you look at a study conducted in 2018 in England and Wales, quoted here, out of 585,000 drivers that were taken to court for breaking the law in 2017, 79% of them were men. Prejudice isn’t based on fact so you need to fight it with fact.

When you are in a situation where you strongly disagree with someone, take a step back and have an open mind by attempting to look at the facts objectively. You need to leave your opinions at the door and come with a fresh set of eyes when reviewing the facts. Take them in at face value. What do they mean? Are you open to the possibility that they may not support your way? It is also worth getting the views of a neutral party. Present them with the facts and figures for both perspectives and ask for their view. Don’t let your prejudices blind you to making a good decision.

3. Turn down the dial on pride by listening

Listen, really listen. You are not being a doormat, you do not need to agree with what is being said but if you just listen and take it in you will have all the information you need to make a better decision and formulate an appropriate response. Listening to someone shows humility and patience and is a good way to improve on both. Everyone has an opinion and they are allowed to. By listening you can validate that the opinion of the person speaking to you actually matters.

I have found listening to be one of the greatest tools to exercise humility whilst dealing with conflict. Conflict in the workplace is usually due to a difference of opinion. If you take your finger off the reaction trigger and just sit and listen to someone’s views you can more often than not propose a compromise that both parties are happy with.

“Humility about how little I know has encouraged me to listen more carefully and more wisely” – John Templeton

4. Accept failure and learn from it

You need to accept and embrace failure. You will make mistakes, you will do wrong to others, you will miss deadlines, you will do all sorts and you need to give yourself and others the room to make mistakes. We are human, we will fail again and again – it should be expected. What is really important is how you handle failure. Are you willing to look at failure analytically, learn from it and seek to better yourself? Are you willing to even see failure? Do you believe you are above failure and mistakes? Do you believe you are perfect? I hate to break it to you but no one is perfect. You will make a mistake, your team will make a mistake, your wife or best friend will all make mistakes. Failure gives you a lot of information. It tells you, this way isn’t working, go back and improve the process.

“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently” – Henry Ford

Read more about embracing failure and building a healthy culture around it here.

5. Create effective habits

As with anything, if you want to be humble you need to create habits that give you the environment to exercise humility. Creating a habitual behaviour is about replacement rather than removal. So create yourself “instead of” scenarios where you look at what a particular trigger is for an action and what you can replace your reaction with. This is a similar and very effective technique to what I describe in this post in the “Manage yourself before you wreck yourself” section.

Summary

Humility is an attribute that is central to effective leadership. You can become more humble through practising humility and taking the right opportunities when you are presented with them using these 5 steps:

  1. Get feedback and act. Embrace feedback and look for ways to improve – be open to it.
  2. Confront your prejudices and have an open mind. Challenge your own assumptions and be willing to hear out the views and opinions of others. Take your own views out of the conversation and look at the facts objectively.
  3. Listen. Taking more time to listen to others means you will be slower to speak and leap to conclusions. You will show humility in listening to others as you will be acknowledging that what they have to say is actually worth listening to.
  4. Accept failure. You will mess up and you will fail. Use failure as a stepping stone for success, acknowledge it, embrace it and use it.
  5. Create effective habits. Replace bad habits with good habits to give your leadership a steer that is parallel to humility.

If you want to read more about employing humility in leadership and why it is important, check out these books:

  • Start With Humility: Lessons from America’s Quiet CEOs on How to Build Trust and Inspire Followers by Merwyn A. Hayes and Michael D. Comer (Amazon US / Amazon  UK)
  • Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t by Simon Sinek (Amazon US / Amazon UK)

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