February 11, 2020

Why Humility in Leadership is so Essential

by Wendy Ryan in Leadership

Humility is one of those leadership behaviors that is paramount to long term success. One can rise to become a leader without this quality, but he won’t necessarily continue to succeed without it.

I define humility in leadership two ways. One, modeling through our words and our actions the feminist perspective that all human beings are fundamentally equal and none should automatically be granted power over another on the basis of their inborn characteristics. Secondly, that we take full responsibility for our impact on others—including acknowledging and apologizing to them when we have made an error. When leaders do these two things consistently, they will show up as both more effective and as humble to others.

But why is humility important as a leader? Why do the work to ensure you’re humble? (Isn’t humility the characteristic of a weak person?)

Often new leaders in particular feel like they need to have all the answers, at all times. That’s largely how they promoted in the first place, right? They learned What To Do and How To Do It better than anyone else in the organization so now it’s their responsibility to call the shots for their department, function or business unit.

But when politics and hierarchy abound in organizations, leaders are afraid to make mistakes and even more afraid to admit them, for fear that their rivals will exploit those weaknesses. The people who work for these leaders learn quickly that if they model this same behavior and support their boss in looking good, they will be rewarded. Eventually, the cumulative impact of this behavior creates an organizational culture that stifles creativity, risk-taking, innovation and productive change.

But here’s the truth:

Hopefully, you’re not the smartest person in the room

Great leaders aren’t afraid to surround themselves with other smart people. In fact, the best leaders intentionally recruit people who are smarter and more knowledgeable than they are about certain things relevant to the work. That’s their job—to create teams of people who can get the job done the best way possible. And sometimes that means those team members will speak up and voice an idea or opinion contrary to their boss’s. A humble leader can recognize that they’re not always right and can run with the ideas of others.

You’re not perfect, and that’s ok

Asking for and receiving feedback from others is a necessary part of growing as a person and a leader. But you’re not perfect now and there will always be more room for you to improve. Getting feedback from others is important and being willing to act on that feedback in a timely manner is even more critical. It shows your team members that you really value what they have to say and you’re open and willing to make changes to ensure you’re a better leader. Even better, it gives your team members permission to not be perfect too, which makes them more likely to take occasional risks and admit mistakes—thus facilitating growth and development. They understand that while you are successful, you’re not perfect. And that’s a good thing for both of you.

Your people need positive reinforcement

Affirmation goes a long way for anyone, no matter what their station in the organization. It’s important that your team members hear from you periodically that you recognize their hard work and value what they’re doing. Complimenting someone on a job well done does not mean that they can’t do it even better next time or that you don’t expect them to try and improve further. It simply means that you see and appreciate their current efforts—that you value them. Your recognition may be all it takes to keep them from accepting a lucrative job offer from your competitor. Or, it might give them confidence to speak up and contribute a novel idea at your next team meeting.

Your reputation is no longer protected behind closed doors

Thanks to social media and apps like GlassDoor, it’s incredibly easy for employees to let others know what the culture is like in your organization. High-caliber talent have a lot of options when it comes to job opportunities and negative reviews can make them think twice about signing on. For top talent who can choose where they want to work and for whom, your personal reputation as someone who people want to work for counts a lot more and monetary incentives, like signing bonuses, may matter less.

Humility engenders trust and builds psychological safety because we perceive humble people to be more like us. This is one of the keys to truly effective leadership.

I talk more about humility and the other pillar behaviors of effective leadership in my upcoming book, Learn Lead Lift: How to Think, Act and Inspire Your Way to Greatness coming out later this year. To be notified when the book is published, enter your name and email address below and you’ll be one of the first to know!

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