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What does it even mean to lead with humility?

Do we even want that?

Despite studies and Harvard Business Review articles that support and promote humility in leadership, and best-selling business books like Great by Choice, Emotional Intelligence and Leaders Eat Lastwhich promote the importance of humility in leadership, we are still enthralled by the romantic notion of a charismatic, messianic, controlling leader who will somehow save us from ourselves.

Case in point

(I will now unburden you of the money in your wallets.)

The problem is that some of those charismatic leaders (or “superheroes” as they are sometimes perceived to be) can also be narcissistic and manipulative in their power. In the HBR article by Margaret Mayo that asks the question of “why we fall for charismatic narcissists?”, she cites Jay A. Conger and Rabindra N. Kanungo’s book on charismatic leadership.  They point to the possible negative outcomes of charismatic leaders. “Charismatic leaders can be prone to extreme narcissism that leads them to promote highly self-serving and grandiose aims.”

Case in point #2

(Just following the script, I guess.)

Margaret also goes on to point out that “[f]ollowers of superheroes are enthralled by their showmanship: through their sheer magnetism, narcissistic leaders transform their environments into a competitive game in which their followers also become more self-centered, giving rise to organizational narcissism.”

Uber recently has experienced some growing pains with having a charismatic leader. While Kalanick has continuously been praised for his bold, ambitious and crushing approach to revolutionizing how we think of transportation, the culture of Uber has taken a hit, forcing him to step aside. It is important to note that the problems that the company is facing is not necessarily just one of growth, rather it is one of culture and public perception (which affects growth). The sexual harassment cases that have suddenly become more evident at Uber have tipped the scales against him. What initially seemed like an isolated problem (Kalanick has a huge ego) has begun to be linked to the culture of the organization as a whole (or at least that is the perception). Jeff Bezos at Amazon is another example of a leader who is charismatic and controlling who gets a lot of credit for the success of the company (as he should), but who reacted hurt and confused back in 2015 when the Times wrote an article about the punishing culture at Amazon. We don’t hear much about the culture there since then.

Getting back to the question of what does it mean to be a humble leader, let’s dispel some misconceptions.

  1. Humble leaders are not “weak leaders.” In my experience, the more humble the leader, the more courageous they are when it comes to calling out bad behavior, leading others through change and following through with their core values regardless of whatever distractions might come up in front of them.
  2. Leadership isn’t about being right all the time. Abraham Lincoln is considered to be one of the more humble Presidents in the history of the U.S.A.. He was able to lead us through a devastating civil war and chart a path of re-unification, mostly due to his willingness to see every side of a problem and seek out the best advice, regardless of whether he agreed with it. While his decision to sign the Emancipation Proclamation was certainly strategic in nature, it was counter to his original beliefs about what was possible with slavery in this country.
  3. Being humble is not about putting yourself down. I often hear people deflecting praise for their work through self-deprecation. This can look like humility, but it can be extremely confusing in leaders. Being a leader and claiming that you have no skill in that area is like offering to be the driver for a long trip and then claiming to be a mediocre or bad driver. It can be a little demotivating for the people in the car.

Mostly because people will imagine scenarios like this:

(Hey man, I said I was not a great driver.)

Humble Leadership

There are a few things about humble leadership that are seem like common sense, and yet they are almost impossible to do within the context of the romantic notion of a charismatic leader. Here is my personal list of eight desirable traits of a humble leader, based on what I have seen as successful leadership within organizations. Let’s assume that the leader already has skill in managing teams, wants to lead and feels aligned with the organizational goals, which feel to me to be table stakes. Elements like vulnerability, courage, honesty, integrity and vision are all capable of being manifested in a humble leader:

  1. Would rather get it right, than be right.
  2. Listens for understanding not control.
  3. Sees value in people, not just in hierarchy.
  4. Takes feedback without feeling wounded or needing retribution.
  5. Unafraid to hire people who are smarter and more talented.
  6. Doesn’t take credit for other people’s success.
  7. Willingness to change direction if something isn’t working.
  8. Judges people’s actions and behaviors without discounting the people themselves.

In short, people who are willing to put their ego aside for the greater good.

What can we do to promote and cultivate leaders who are humble?

We can begin with our own inner life.

The reason that we become attracted to charismatic leaders is that they offer us the promise that they can save us from whatever danger causes us the most anxiety (unemployment, failure, other people, loneliness, etc…). It creates a cult of personality and taps into the superman mythos.

(Thanks a lot, Nietzsche. Jerk.)

While this myth is popular, it can also lead to justification for terrible behavior. The Nazi’s used Nietzsche’s work as philosophical support for their “perfect race” theory as well being a powerful part of Hitler’s propaganda.

The ultimate power of a humble leader is that he/she does not believe that one person is capable of doing it all. It is only through combined and concertive actions that we achieve greatness as an organization and as the human race. When we try to raise our leaders up to mythic status, even those who are normally humble in nature (think Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., or the Dalai Lama), we strip them of their humanity and thereby of their lessons.

When we make make leaders into superheroes, we lose sight of our individual responsibility. We also abdicate our own roles as leaders.

The key to cultivating these values in ourselves, regardless of whether we think of ourselves as leaders, is in understanding what drives us personally.

What are your values?

What motivates you?

Are you willing to be vulnerable?

Are you willing to listen for understanding?

Are you willing to see the value in others, not just their title/fame/wealth?

Are you willing to take feedback without feeling victimized or needing retribution?

Are we willing to seek excellence from a place of humility?

It’s a choice that we all have to make.

(And not everyone chooses the humble route.)

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