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The importance of humility in leadership

August 28, 2019
4 minute read
Last updated May 6, 2020

“When I think back

On all the crap I learned in high school

It’s a wonder

I can think at all” 

– Paul Simon, “Kodachrome”  

OK, that’s not really how I feel about my MBA studies of several decades back; I got an awful lot of technical financial value out of my program, to be sure. But when it came to people-management insights, there was a steady diet of focus on control, authority, and executive presence, and that was about it.

And if there was one thing I learned in nearly a quarter-century of actual Fortune 500 management, it was that too steady a diet of control, authority, and executive presence has the potential to alienate a sizable portion of your workforce, slashing engagement levels.

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But a relatively obscure attribute like leadership humility (which my management professors would have sooner chewed glass than focused on) can help move the employee engagement needle in the right direction. This is why I was very interested to recently happen across a Journal of Management study linking CEO humility to positive performance. Specifically, the researchers concluded that “when a more humble CEO leads a firm, its top management team (TMT) is more likely to collaborate, share information, jointly make decisions, and possess a shared vision.” All highly functional managerial outcomes. 

A sustainable style

I’d argue that the positive value of humility applies to all levels of management, not just the most senior leaders. Why wouldn’t it? Management, after all, is the business of accomplishing work through others and getting those others to want to keep doing their very best for you, day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year.

An overly controlling authoritative style may get results in the short term, but how sustainable is it in the long term? Fact is, people tend to chafe under too much control. A little humility, conveying the sense that a manager may well not know all the answers but values the input and collaboration of others, can be a more sustainable approach. “Give credit, take responsibility,” as the old management saying goes.

Being a manager is a huge undertaking.

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I came of management age in a conservative financial services organization in the 1980s and was viewed through much of my career a bit of an anomaly, a little too soft-spoken and humble perhaps. “Think military hierarchy,” one of my managers, who was doubtful of my quieter, more Type B approach, once told me. “You’ve gotta let them know who’s boss.” Yes indeed you do, I’d fully agree, but there are many ways of doing that.

Effective management should be personal, not a “one size fits all” endeavor. Over time, my own management came to realize I could in fact deliver positive results—I was just was going about it in a little different way.

Today’s reality, I’ve come to believe, is that an old school command-and-control style, which definitely had its place in the business world I cut my teeth in, doesn’t play as well with, let’s say, our Millennial and Gen Z workforce. They’re used to more collaborative relationships and less top-down decision making. Not to say that control, authority and executive presence aren’t at times critical. Sure they are. Management isn’t a walk a park or a dinner party. You have to deliver strong results, or you won’t be in management long. But as the study cited above indicated, a dose of humility can help build esprits de corps and create the kind of environment people want to produce strong results in. 

Victor Lipman is a management trainer and author. His online courses on Udemy include The Manager’s Mindset and his book is The Type B Manager. He has more than 20 years of Fortune 500 management experience. He has contributed regularly to Forbes and Psychology Today, and his work has appeared in Harvard Business Review.