Humility Will Make You a More Effective Leader

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4 min

Written by: Tobias Günther

“I could be wrong here… What am I missing?”

You don’t hear leaders say humble words like these very often. Leadership, even today, is often strict and authoritative, bordering on “I am right. Always.”

And why should it be different? Isn’t humility a sign of weakness? Why should leaders admit that they don’t know everything, make mistakes, and sometimes need help from their colleagues?

* * *

Let’s start with an answer to this last question: science confirms, study after study, that humble leaders are indeed better leaders! They are more effective and their performance is higher. Humility can indeed be called a “competitive advantage”.

How can this be?

Humility certainly is the “underdog” among leadership skills. This is partly due to a handful of misconceptions and an undeservedly bad reputation. Let’s start clearing humility’s name!

* * * 

First, humility doesn’t mean subordination. It also doesn’t mean never speaking up or never taking credit for great work. And it’s also not what Kim Scott, in her book “Radical Candor”, called “ruinous empathy”.

What is it, then?

Humility helps us define our relationships. It puts us at eye level (not above or below) with our colleagues.

This is a crucial aspect of humility. Because the opposite — believing you don’t make mistakes or are better / more intelligent / more capable than your colleagues — has serious negative effects:

  • Ideas aren’t voiced: When leaders believe they’re better than their colleagues, they won’t be open for their ideas. On top, others won’t be as willing to share their own ideas when they know they will be ignored anyway. The painful result is that the best ideas aren’t voiced and innovation withers.
  • No culture of feedback and learning: When leaders believe they don’t make mistakes (or at least don’t admit them), their colleagues won’t admit theirs, either! This is one of the many areas where leaders are role models. The painful result is that there won’t be a culture of feedback and learning — a critical ingredient for a successful organization.
  • No personal growth for the leader: When leaders believe they’re the smartest person in the room, there’s not much incentive for them to improve. The painful result is that leaders stop learning and growing.

Before I pitchfork you into a depression about our current state of leadership, let’s talk about the positive effects you can expect when humility is present:

  • Appreciation: When you’re at eye level with your direct reports, they feel valued; they feel like human beings, not just cogs in a machine. This is a core human need which, if not met, reduces performance and commitment. Ultimately, it will drive people away and cause them to leave.
  • Feedback & Learning: It has a profound effect on employees when they see that you, as a leader, admit your mistakes and ask for help. Only then will they feel encouraged to do the same — and a culture of open feedback and learning can emerge.
  • Responsibility: Admitting that leaders can’t do and know it all sends an important message: “If this team is going to be successful, we need YOU!” This is when employees really start taking responsibility.
  • Support & Care: When leaders present themselves as untouchable and unfailing gods, you can’t expect employees to care very much. Only humble leaders can expect their employees to contribute, support, and help.

Humility is a core component of psychological safety — which, in a study by Google, has been identified to be the #1 ingredient in high-performing teams!

But it’s not only great for employees and teams. Humility is also extremely beneficial for leaders, because it takes the pressure off of them:

  • Leaders can finally stop pretending that they have all the answers. It’s incredibly relieving, authentic and very natural to admit that you can’t do it all alone!
  • Leaders can let go of micromanagement. The illusion that we can control everything — results and people — bursts like a soap bubble once you’re more open with your team.
  • Leaders can start appreciating their colleagues more fully. Because humility comes with an important understanding: in our complex world, you can achieve NOTHING without your coworkers.

Finally, let’s address the big pink elephant in the room...

What can you do, in practice, to become a more humble leader?

A simple but very powerful approach lies in the language we use. In meetings and One-on-Ones, practice using sentences like the following more often:

  • “What do you think?”
  • “These are just my thoughts. What’s your opinion on this?”
  • “I’m not entirely sure about my idea here. Do you have other ideas?”
  • “I could be wrong here…”
  • “What am I missing?”

On the one hand, this demonstrates that you, too, are just made of flesh and bones. It encourages people to speak up and contribute their own thoughts and ideas. And it shows your appreciation if you actively seek out their opinions.

On the other hand, just to reassure you once more, you don’t have to worry about losing your credibility as a result. Quite the contrary: the research I’ve mentioned at the beginning shows that humility can become a competitive advantage for leaders. And that humble leaders tend to be the most effective ones!

I’ll leave you with a quote from management consultant and author Frédéric Laloux. In his book “Reinventing Organizations”, he writes about a company called “Sun Hydraulics”, where humility has already permeated a large part of the corporate culture:

“At Sun Hydraulics, people have dropped the illusion that one person, however competent, could master all the information of such a complex system and heroically, from above, make the right call for hundreds of decisions that need to be made every week. Instead, they trust the collective intelligence of the system."

Let me know what you think in the comments!

And don’t hesitate to get in touch with me: I will (humbly) admit that I don’t know it all, but I’m happy to help ;-)

Take care,

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