The Markers of a Humble Leader
By Kristine Kern
December 2017

In my work as a consultant for Pat Lencioni’s firm, The Table Group, potential clients sometimes ask what key factors lead to success in achieving organizational health. I respond that the commitment of the leader is hugely important. And that is absolutely true – when the leader owns the success of organizational health, there’s a very good chance it will happen. Another important contributor is the humility of the leader. Show me a humble leader who is clear about their commitment, and I’ll show you a healthy organization. 

In The Ideal Team Player, Pat Lencioni talks about the three virtues of teamwork and humility gets top billing along with hunger and smarts (the emotional kind). He defines two types of people who lack humility: “overtly arrogant people who make everything about them,” and “people who lack self-confidence but are generous and positive with others.” 

The first type is not surprising and what most people identify with “lack of humility.” Leaders who are overtly arrogant don’t listen well, have trouble engaging in constructive conflict (because, after all, they already know the answer), are happy to hold others accountable but have trouble being accountable themselves. 

Another way the arrogant type can impact a team is more subtle. A while back, I worked with a leader at a publishing company who lead a creative team. When we talked about over communication and the role it plays in organizational health, he balked. No way was he going to be repeating himself to his direct reports. He was adamant about that. However, he did a pretty good job implementing many of the other concepts around organizational health and a year or so later, he called me to confess.

“I get it,” he said. “My unwillingness to over communicate was all about me. I didn’t want my team to think I was pedantic or worse, nagging them, so I didn’t spend the time to over communicate. And they suffered. What I thought was incredibly clear, wasn’t.”

His lack of humility – in that he was managing in a way that upheld his overblown 
self-image – impacted the team’s ability to achieve and he realized it. Needless to say, his team experienced a lot more success once he started communicating with vigor. 

I mentioned a second type of leader who lacks humility – and the way they negatively affect teams may surprise you. Many people don’t even readily identify these self-effacing folks as not humble. But, as Lencioni says in The Ideal Team Player, “truly humble people do not see themselves as greater than they are, but neither do they discount their talents and contributions.” C.S. Lewis put it another way: “Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less.” 

I saw a classic example of this recently. During a team meeting at a health care company I worked with, the CEO, who struggles with being overly self-effacing, explained a developing situation with a key employee, Tim. This employee has been with the company since its founding, holds a significant role, and has a big presence at the company. And he wasn’t happy. The CEO, Marcus told the team that he’d changed the reporting structure to have the disgruntled employee report directly to him. In addition, the employee’s role would change to focus on future development, a job that someone else on the team already holds. 

The CEO Marcus felt really strongly about this situation, but you’d never know it from how he talked about it. He spoke in a muted voice; his language was fairly blasé. His insecurities showed up as a lack of conviction, which made it hard for the rest of the team to ask challenging (and important) questions. Some fairly weighty strategic issues went unaddressed because it didn’t seem to the team like the CEO could withstand them. 

This situation is not as uncommon as you might think. 

When leaders don’t show the courage of their convictions, it is more difficult for their teammates to do their jobs and engage in constructive ideological debate, aka conflict. Ultimately, the business suffers. 

Humility, unfortunately, is something that’s difficult to teach, but I have seen leaders with true discipline have success in showing up more humbly by mimicking certain behaviors long enough that they become second nature. 

This means doing humble things like:

·     complimenting teammates
·     readily admitting mistakes
·     sharing credit with the team
·     offering and accepting apologies
·     accepting accountability with grace
·     showing conviction with openness
·     listening to input of others
·     inviting open debate from the team

These can be a good start for those who have work to do in this area. And if you have the ability to choose your leader, these are great markers of a truly humble leader who can help make amazing things happen within organizations. 

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