Leading With Humility
What It Looks Like, Why It Matters And Where To Begin
The word ‘humility’ (from the Latin humilis) originally means ‘low’ or ‘small’. I’m guessing this isn’t what you might immediately associate with a leadership strength, so what is it about this curiously controversial commodity that brings tangible benefits to today’s leaders?
The value of leading with humility largely depends on how a leader handles three ‘make or break’ factors — power, responsibility and respect. Getting to a place of ease with these, undoubtedly serves to help anyone glide more smoothly over the minefield of workplace relationships and lay a stronger foundation for effective leadership.
Whether we like it or not, any leadership position comes with a certain degree of power but, unfortunately, what is less clear is the delicate dynamic that exists between positional power and personal power. All too often the two are messily entangled and our psychological antennae have become sensitive to who is telling who what to do, who always has the last word, whose opinion counts most and who ultimately makes the decisions. Subtly we are all wired to monitor our place in the hierarchy and our Egos are alerted if our position comes under threat. This means that in very hierarchical and/or competitive environment, our stress responses are being triggered continually.
Knowing how to manage this power dynamic appropriately is, in my experience, a refined skill that takes constant vigilance and attention. It also requires the rigour of being completely honest with yourself and operating in an environment in which other people can be completely honest with you. This is where humility can be a major ally.
One of the main benefits of developing humility as a leader is that you cease to be a threat to anyone. And when there is no fear and no disgruntlement, people tend to show up much more fully around you, sharing their ideas and giving their energy and commitment to the work in hand. There is almost a palpable sense of ease and flow when the leader simply withdraws from the power game. Instead they recognise the truth that, no matter how powerful someone might think they are, trying to change anyone else’s behaviour or trying to influence someone who is singularly focused on maintaining their own position can be hard work and ultimately a waste of time. It also has the potential to undermine and demoralise.
I’m sure you’ve had the experience that however hard you try, you can’t make anyone listen to you, you can’t make them understand you or make them care about the same things that you care about. Whatever influencing tactics you use, you cannot guarantee how anyone will respond to what you say or do. The only sensible response is to mind your own business which, in terms of leading with humility, means taking your attention away from defending your power or position and focusing instead on maintaining healthy boundaries and being conscious of how you are responding to others.
So what exactly is your responsibility when you are leading with humility? This takes us back into the realm of positional power. Leading with humility involves carefully considering your leadership responsibilities, not shying away from your duties but undertaking them in the spirit of service. It also means knowing when to delegate and defer to others because they know best. Yet, in this regard, humility is not about people-pleasing, being sycophantic or being the proverbial yes-man or woman but knowing when to acquiesce and when to hold your ground for the good of the whole.
Demonstrating humility also means taking responsibility to acknowledge your limits, admit your mistakes, say when you don’t have an answer and be honest about your thoughts and feelings. Finally, when there are disappointments, problems or cock-ups in the wider team or business, it is absolutely the responsibility of the humble leader not to hide under the parapet but to take the lead in putting things right.
This may all sound relatively straightforward in principle, but making it work on the ground relies on the final ‘make or break’ factor — respect. There are three facets to this: others respect for you, your respect for others and your respect for yourself. The first of these is the only one you do not have 100% control over; however, if you get the other bits right, the chances of earning others’ respect is massively enhanced.
Respecting others means encouraging them to express who they are and to share what they have, with sincere gratitude and validation. It comes from attentive listening and gaining deeper understanding, showing compassion and unconditional support. Many people have been so wounded by the world that their defensive behaviours have become second nature. A humble leader is able to recognise this, acknowledge the potential behind sometimes harsh and critical behaviour and create a safe environment for people to dis-arm.
With conscious attention, you can learn how to be appreciative, compassionate and respectful, both to yourself and others. Developing a habit of thinking and acting in a way that focuses on the positive potential and maintains self-esteem will strengthen immunity to criticism and alleviate some major sources of distress.
Ultimately, having self-respect relies predominantly on having a healthy relationship with yourself. When you are comfortable in your own skin, you have no need to outdo others. You are able to hold a calm self-assurance and go quietly about living in alignment with your values and principles without needing to defend them. When you are able to live in integrity without putting yourself or others down, the chances are that even when they don’t agree with you, other people will treat you with respect. And if they don’t, you are strong enough not to take it personally.
Where To Begin — Seven Ways To Develop Your Humility
These suggestions are applicable in any context, not just leadership. Some of them are practical, straightforward actions that you could put into practice immediately, but others have their roots in deeper principles that may take time to shift:
1. Give up trying to influence others — In my humble opinion, consistently trying to influence others can be a subtle form of arrogance. There can be an underlying sub-text that says ‘I want things my way / I’m right / I know best’. The key to humility is to say what you need to say, do what you need to do then let go of whether people like it, agree with it or do anything differently as a result. Not only does this give you control over the only thing you really can control i.e. yourself, it also demonstrates respect for others.
2. Be prepared to concede (except when it really matters) — Be alert for times when you are a little over-attached to having your say or getting your way. Be willing to let things go, acquiesce and compromise to ensure that others are feeling validated. However, it’s equally important to emphasise that you alone are the custodian of your values and principles and compromising these will risk compromising your integrity.
3. Show genuine interest in others — Other people are endless sources of fascination and they all want to be heard. Don’t use every conversation to air your own views. Appreciate and respect the myriad of other views and contributions that are shared. To build your understanding, practise asking questions that build on what is being said, and the deeper understanding you gain will typically build empathy and compassion.
4. Be aware without being judgmental — Be continually curious and gather information to build awareness and understanding. Aim to be as impartial as possible and resist the temptation to form a strong opinion that you may get attached to. Staying neutral helps you to be open to all new information and gain an increasingly broad perspective rather than defending your position.
5. Accept ambiguity and paradox — Life itself has some profound paradoxes e.g. it is simultaneously predictable and unpredictable. In a similar way, each one of us is both immensely powerful and extremely insignificant. We are all at the mercy of some bigger forces that are way beyond the limits of what we can control so it’d be helpful to develop tolerance around ‘going with the flow’. When things don’t turn out as planned, aim to embrace what is unfolding without complaint.
6. Ask for help — None of us has unlimited resources, nor endless expertise, yet we consider asking for help as a sign of weakness. It isn’t. It’s OK to admit when you have reached your limits, or have made a mistake, or don’t have all the relevant information. Asking for help or support could be your saving grace.
7. Accept imperfections in yourself and others — The final suggestion is really about taking yourself a little more lightly. If you get hung up about your reputation, being perfect, being approved of etc., it is often a sign that the vulnerable Ego is on the defensive again, trying to avoid any critical judgment. Rather than being disparaging of every minor shortcoming, is it too much to ask to be gracious and forgiving? This has to start with yourself before being extended to others. We are built to learn from trial and error so is it really too big a stretch to accept this aspect of our humanness? The kindest response is to accept your glorious imperfection, and know that every error or inadequacy is a perfect catalyst for growth.
In conclusion, humility doesn’t mean giving up your power; it does mean giving up any attempts to over-power. Secondly, humility doesn’t mean giving up responsibility; it does mean being responsible for living your life your way and allowing others to do the same. And finally, showing humility doesn’t mean losing respect. Instead, deep respect will be gained when you are so profoundly at ease in yourself that you make no effort to stand out. Then, the strength of your presence is impressive in itself.
Humility is a core trait of Spiritual Intelligence (SQ). For more information on using SQ both personally and professionally go to www.rethinkingchange.co.uk