Create Strength Through Humility
- 24 Best Leadership Practices | Part 6 of 24 -
There is great power in humility and it is this one character trait that is the true test of a leader’s character. As Abraham Lincoln so profoundly noted, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.” Unfortunately, many managers lose control when given any sign of power and title. As former CEO of Goldman Sachs John Weinberg found, “When someone gets a big job some grow into it and some swell into.” Simply, many people upon receiving a title or supposed leadership platform all of the sudden (1) believe they know all the answers, (2) think they don't have to listen, and (3) make snap judgments because they feel they couldn't possibly be wrong. Such a mindset is the beginning of the end not only for the leader but also, and unfortunately, for those they are leading. Instead, a leadership title doesn’t mean greater status, rights, or power but rather it’s an obligation to embrace continuous improvement and bring out the best in others - both of which can only be accomplished with humility. As such, humility is not a sign of weakness but is rather strength under control. Simply, there is great strength in humility because true leadership does not rest with those that think they know but rather with those that have the humility to realize they don’t know. Accordingly, any leader can begin this lifelong humility journey by embracing the following four initiatives, specifically:
- Become a Gold Miner - Not a Gold Creator: Leaders don't need to create solutions but instead must have the humility to openly search out, recognize, and support good ideas from anyone and anywhere across the enterprise. Simply, leadership does not rest with those that think they know but rather with those that have the humility to realize they don't know.
- Listen First - Speak Last: A leader isn't good because they're right but rather because they listen, learn, and bring out the best in others. Speaking first drives “yes” people and a culture that commands instead of inspires action. On the other hand, listening first and speaking last ensures transparency, drives innovation, and creates other leaders instead of followers.
- Ensure a Continuous Learning Mentality via Two-Way Mentorship: A transformation always on mindset is vital to leadership success and humility. And, perhaps nothing is as vital to this continuous improvement journey than two way mentorship because teaching and learning are not completely opposite but rather are completely intertwined.
- Self-Reflect: Hindsight alone will not drive 20/20 but rather the self-reflection that must go along with it. Otherwise any success or failure will be nothing more than a game of chance. Simply, self-reflection is the enemy of pride, the beginning of emotional awareness, and the gateway for future success.
Become a Gold Miner - Not a Gold Creator
- Leadership Does not Rest With Those That Think They Know but Rather With Those That Have the Humility to Realize They Don't Know -
Leaders are often several steps removed from the real action and are thus not those with the true pulse of the customers. However, more often than not leaders move forward with the assumption and hubris of thinking they have the right answer. Instead, leaders never reach a place in which they should have or think they have the right answer (i.e., don't try to be a gold creator). Instead, leaders must have the humility to openly search out, recognize, and support good ideas from anyone and anywhere across the enterprise (i.e., become a gold miner). Simply, leaders have questions rather than answers meaning leaders must never think they are gold creators but rather embrace the fact that they are gold miners. As Jim Collins found, “Leading from good to great does not mean coming up with the answers and motivating everyone to follow your messianic vision. It means having the humility to grasp the fact that you do not yet understand enough to have the answers, and then to ask questions that will lead to the best possible insights.” This can only transpire via humility and by creating a transparent culture that encourages and enables great ideas to surface from the frontline on up. Remember, “when you were made a leader you weren’t given a crown, you were given a responsibility to bring out the best in others (Jack Welch).” Indeed, more often than not, the answers lie within the enterprise - not necessarily in the ivory towers of the C-Suite. Accordingly, great leaders (1) recognize that everyone adds immense value, (2) create a culture of humility that promotes transparency and an obligation to respectfully dissent, and (3) implements a culture of learning versus a need to be the smartest person in the room. Remember, leaders need not always be the creators or originators. In fact, it is just as likely that they are not.
Listen First - Speak Last
- A Leader Isn't Good Because They're Right but Rather Because They Listen, Learn, and Bring Out the Best in Others -
Great leaders listen, learn, and bring out the best in people. As such, leaders must seek to understand before they’re understood. Simply, great leaders listen first and speak last. Indeed, there’s a good reason we as humans were given two ears and only one mouth. Every single person, from the bottoms-up, adds immense value and no one is better than another. As such, one must (1) have the humility and inner confidence to surround yourself with smarter people than yourself, (2) have the emotional awareness to seek to understand before you’re understood by considering and valuing other’s perspectives, and (3) take an inclusive approach by giving away power and allowing those with the pulse of the customers and true functional expertise to have a voice. For example, when Satya Nadella became the CEO of Microsoft in 2014, he embarked on an ambitious transformation journey spearheaded by a change in culture. Microsoft's culture at the time was one of showing up as the smartest person in the room, speaking first, asking questions second. Nadella transformed the culture into one of learning. Instead of showing up with a fixed mindset, where your role was to be the smartest person in the room, Nadella promoted a culture where your role was to listen, to learn and to bring out the best in people. The results speak for themselves as the stock price has increased by ~2.5X since Nadella took the helm at Microsoft.
Ensure a Continuous Learning Mentality
- Drive two-way mentorship because teaching and learning are not completely opposite but rather are completely intertwined -
Great leaders must be continuous learners realizing that past success does not equal future success. The question should always be how can “I” and “the company” be better today than we were yesterday. Such a mindset requires throwing off any notion of personal pride and “arrival” status. Visionary companies achieve extraordinary outcomes because they refuse to be satisfied. Simply, if it’s not broken, they believe they should go fix it anyway. The same is true for one's leadership development. Remember, the leadership journey has no finish line but instead has an exponential path of improvement that will allow one to travel as far as they’re willing to continually improve and stay humble. Accordingly, leaders must find the right balance between directive and inclusive leadership. Indeed, “I Don’t Know” can sometimes be the best response. On one hand, leaders must be willing to make the tough calls when necessary and as such be directive when called upon. On the other hand, and to truly spark humility while simultaneously capturing the hearts and minds of people, a leader must promote two-way mentorship. Simply, two-way mentorship, consisting of both outbound and inbound mentorship, is perhaps the greatest asset to ensuring a journey of continuous improvement.
Regarding outbound mentorship, while one's time as a leader may be fleeting one's investment in others is enduring. However, without inbound mentorship one is commanding not communicating. Indeed, such a command and control mode is diametrically opposed to humility. As President of the World Bank Jim Yong Kim noted, “No matter how good you think you are as a leader, my goodness, the people around you will have all kinds of ideas for how you can get better. So for me, the most fundamental thing about leadership is to have the humility to continue to get feedback and to try to get better - because your job is to try to help everybody else get better." Indeed, two-way mentorship ensures interaction and a continuous learning mindset. This is vital because interaction fuels action and humility inspires devotion. Ultimately, outbound and inbound mentorship goes hand in hand because teaching and learning are not completely opposite but rather are completely intertwined. Remember, leaders cannot command commitment - they can only inspire it. However, leaders can only truly inspire by first exhibiting humility via a continuous learning mentality which is promoted via two-way mentorship - a powerful gateway to sustainable humility.
- Self-Reflect for 20/20 Vision, Otherwise Any Success or Failure Will be Nothing More Than a Game of Chance -
Finally, to inspire true humility leaders should self-reflect. Indeed, self-reflection is the enemy of pride, the beginning of emotional awareness, and the gateway to future success. As Confucius stated, “By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” Simply, self-reflection unlocks wisdom, learning insights, and future success. Leaders must never be satisfied with past success but rather understand that future success, wisdom, and learnings can only come from a healthy does of self-reflection, grounding, and emotional awareness - all key humility drivers. As Peter Drucker noted, “Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action.” Indeed, self-reflection is the fuel that ensures leaders maintain a commitment to relentless self-improvement. Thus, if you want 20/20 vision never forget to self-reflect. Otherwise, you’ll be wandering around aimlessly, playing a game of chance with not only your life but also with the lives of those you are leading. Simply, without self-reflection any past success or failure will be nothing more than a game of chance, meaning any wins or losses will be passing noise. Instead, self-reflection turns passing noise into value unlocking insights that empower the mind, soul, and spirit. As Jim Collins noted, “The single biggest danger in business and life, other than outright failure, is to be successful without being resolutely clear about why you are successful in the first place.” Accordingly, self-reflection (1) allows one to be comfortable in one’s skin (remember the leadership journey is not about becoming someone else but instead about becoming your best self), (2) ensures emotional awareness and humility, and (3) allows for the abandonment of personal complacency which is the death of any leadership’s journey of continuous improvement. Indeed, self-reflection mirrors the true soul of the leader. As such, great leaders plan with the mind, lead from the heart, and reflect with the soul.
Above all, leaders must remember that humility is not a sign of weakness but is rather strength under control. Indeed, one need only look as far as the first principle of the Bushido (a Samurai’s code), which highlights to always keep death in mind by living each day as if it were your last. Then, and only then, did the mighty Samurai believe that one would conduct themselves properly in all actions. The meaning of the term “samurai” means to serve which is variation on a theme of the word humility. As such, the powerful samurai were very quick to highlight humility as their first code. Simply, by keeping death in mind they felt humility would never be far away. No matter how smart, powerful, or successful one becomes it is always vital to keep oneself grounded, to be self-aware, to give away power, to listen instead of speak, and to bring out the best in others by making them look better than yourself. Quite simply, great leaders have the humility to be a gold miner instead of the hubris of attempting to be a gold creator.
As such, leaders can ensure humility via (1) seeking out the right answer instead of assuming they have the right answer, (2) listening first and speaking last, (3) embracing a continuous improvement mentality via two-way mentorship, and (4) self-reflecting. Leaders that embrace these four steps will not only be on their way to maximizing their own potential but also the potential of those around them. Simply, there is great strength in meekness with humility acting as the gateway to successful leadership and inspired followers. Indeed, true strength does not rest with those that think they know but rather with those that have the humility to realize they don’t know.
Read the other best leadership practices HERE.
24 Best Leadership Practices
- Series Overview -
The following article is Part 6 of a 24 part series on leadership (See all 24 best leadership practices HERE). To summarize, leadership is everyone’s business. Moreover, leadership abilities are not some innate talent that some were either born with or not but rather is a highly learnable skill. As such, everyone has the potential to become a great leader as long as one embraces a mindset of continuous improvement. Simply, leadership is not so much about inherent gifts and raw talent but rather the emotional awareness, humility, and perseverance to understand that leadership is a lifelong journey that is never mastered. Indeed, aspiring leaders must acquire the endurance of a marathoner, the musculature of a sprinter, and the mental fortitude to embrace that there is never a finish line but rather an unending goal of continuous transformation.
Ultimately, the leadership journey is not about becoming someone else but instead is about becoming one's best self so that in turn one can help others become their best self. And, while there are many facets that go into successful leadership we have identified 24 best leadership practices all of which are grouped into one of three categories, namely (1) inspire, (2) empower, and (3) innovate (see all 24 practices HERE).
- INSPIRE: To inspire action, great leaders appeal to people's hearts more than their minds. Simply, visionary leaders plan with the mind, lead with the heart, and reflect with the soul.
- EMPOWER: Great leaders empower those they are leading while simultaneously creating a collaborative culture that promotes the notion that together we can accomplish anything as long as we don't care who gets the credit.
- INNOVATE: Visionary leaders embrace change and understand that the term "good enough" is used by the lazy to justify inaction. As such, great leaders disrupt themselves and their companies before others do it for them.
Leadership is the greatest race one will ever run – one without a finish line but also one with an exponential ceiling for those that embrace change, growth, and learning. While the level of employee talent may determine the potential of an organization it is the leader that ultimately unlocks that potential and determines the success of both the organization and its people. Although no leader will be a master at each of the proposed 24 leadership practices, awareness is often the greatest agent for change and continuous improvement. As such, we hope the proposed practices will be of service to you in maximizing not only your leadership potential but also the potential of those around you.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joshua Seedman is the founder and chairman of PNI Consulting, a management consulting firm that specializes in global transformations. He has over 20 years of operating and general management experience with expertise in organizational transformations, customer experience, employee engagement, digital transformations, sales & marketing, operational turnarounds, culture/change management, and high-stakes negotiations. His experience includes executive roles within F500 companies, top-tier consulting leadership (McKinsey & Company), over 10 years of global P&L ownership, and corporate lawyer (Davis Polk & Wardwell). He received his MBA from Kellogg School of Management and his Juris Doctor (cum laude) from Northwestern University School of Law.