Six Principles for Developing Humility as a Leader
Whether we're looking at business or politics, sports or entertainment, it's clear we live in an era of self-celebration. Fame is equated with success, and being self-referential has become the norm. As a result we are encouraged to pump ourselves full of alarming self-confidence. Bluster and the alpha instinct, contends Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, professor of business psychology, often get mistaken for ability and effectiveness (at least for a while). It may well be why so many (incompetent) men rise ahead of women to leadership positions, as Chamorro-Premuzic argued in a recent HBR post.
Yes, we have scores of books, articles, and studies that warn us of the perils of hubris. The word comes from the Greek and means extreme pride and arrogance, generally indicating a loss of connection to reality brought about when those in power vastly overestimate their capabilities. And yes, many of us have also seen evidence that its opposite, humility, inspires loyalty, helps to build and sustain cohesive, productive team work, and decreases staff turnover. Jim Collins had a lot to say about CEOs he saw demonstrating modesty and leading quietly, not charismatically, in his 2001 bestseller Good to Great.
Yet the attribute of humility seems to be neglected in leadership development programs. And to the extent it is considered by managers rising through the ranks, it is often misunderstood. How can we change this?
First, let's get a few things straight. Humility is not hospitality, courtesy, or a kind and friendly demeanor. Humility has nothing to do with being meek, weak, or indecisive. Perhaps more surprising, it does not entail shunning publicity. Organizations need people who get marketing, including self-marketing, to flourish and prosper.
Hubris, meanwhile, is not a fair label to apply to any person who thinks differently and has the courage to assert or act on their convictions. Studies show, however, that serious problems emerge when robust individualism commingles with narcissism — another term for which we can thank the Greeks (whose demigod Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection). Narcissism combines an exaggerated sense of one's own abilities and achievements with a constant need for attention, affirmation, and praise. While the label tends to be applied loosely to anyone behaving in a self-absorbed way, psychologists know narcissism to be a formal personality disorder for some, and a real impediment to their forming healthy relationships. The narcissist lacks self-awareness and empathy and is often hypersensitive to criticism or perceived insults. He or she frequently exaggerates contributions and claims to be "expert" at many different things. If you are part of an organization with a leader exhibiting such characteristics, you have a problem. (Executive search firms and hiring committees beware.)
But beyond refusing to hire or promote such extreme cases, can and should organizations try to cultivate more humility in their leadership ranks? How would that goal take shape in the context of a formal leadership development program? As a starting point, we would suggest a curriculum designed around six basic principles. If you're a developing leader, you should be taught to:
Know what you don't know.
Resist "master of the universe" impulses. You may yourself excel in an area, but as a leader you are, by definition, a generalist. Rely on those who have relevant qualification and expertise. Know when to defer and delegate.
Resist falling for your own publicity.
We all do it: whether we're writing a press release or a self-appraisal, we put the best spin on our success — and then conveniently forget that the reality wasn't as flawless. Drinking in the glory of a triumph can be energizing. Too big a drink is intoxicating. It blurs vision and impairs judgment.
Never underestimate the competition.
You may be brilliant, ambitious, and audacious. But the world is filled with other hard-working, high-IQ, and creative professionals. Don't kid yourself that they and their innovations aren't a serious threat.
Embrace and promote a spirit of service.
Employees quickly figure out which leaders are dedicated to helping them succeed, and which are scrambling for personal success at their expense. Customers do, too.
Listen, even (no, especially) to the weird ideas.
Only when you are not convinced that your idea is or will be better than someone else's do you really open your ears to what they are saying. But there is ample evidence that you should: the most imaginative and valuable ideas tend to come from left field, from some associate who seems a little offbeat, and may not hold an exalted position in the organization.
Be passionately curious.
Constantly welcome and seek out new knowledge, and insist on curiosity from those around you. Research has found linkages between curiosity and many positive leadership attributes (including emotional and social intelligence). Take it from Einstein. "I have no special talent," he claimed. "I am only passionately curious."
We can't imagine that an individual exposed to the six principles above and encouraged to take them to heart could become anything but a better leader.
But meanwhile, assuming your organization isn't already helping its leaders develop such habits of mind, let us leave you with two humble, and humbling, suggestions. First: subject yourself to a 360 review. Anonymous feedback from the people who surround you may constitute a mirror you won't love gazing into, but as Ann Landers wrote: "Don't accept your dog's admiration as conclusive evidence that you are wonderful." 360 feedback pays off in two ways. It shows you how your self-perception deviates from others' perception of your leadership. (And in leadership, perception is reality.) And it gives you a valuable practice in receiving feedback and turning criticism into a plan for growth and development.
Second, get a coach. We all have blind spots, and there's certainly no shame in getting help with them. Fast Company reports that 43% of CEOs and 71% of Senior Executives say they've worked with a coach. And 92% of leaders being coached say they plan to use a coach again.
Resolve to work on your own humility and you will begin to notice and appreciate its power all around you. In a recent meeting we convened in Los Angeles, the accomplished Chairman and CEO of a major Hollywood studio shared the benefit of his experience with 20 young professionals and students. What did this leader emphasize with the group? He spoke of his own failures, weaknesses, and blind spots, and how they had spurred his learning and success. The fact that he spoke about himself in this way deeply impressed the group. He projected convincing self-confidence, authenticity, and wisdom.
He was a convincing example of the kind of leader our organizations should be trying harder to develop — the kind that knows it's better to develop a taste for humility now than be forced to eat humble pie later.