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CEOs Would Do Well to Give Humility a Chance

How to embrace humble leadership and position your company for sustained success.

The CEOs that get the most press are strong personalities, firm and unapologetic in their beliefs and leadership styles. These leaders motivate others with aggression and charisma. But there’s another, less-discussed quality that pays off for business leaders: humility. Effective leaders might be charming or fearsome or both, but the most effective CEOs can also admit to their mistakes and learn from others. And while these qualities are less likely to be highlighted in the profiles we read or the TV segments we watch, humility can make or break a CEO.

Humility means many things. It involves minimizing status differences, listening to subordinates, soliciting input, recognizing your own weaknesses or knowledge gaps, admitting mistakes, and being flexible enough to change course when an idea or strategy doesn’t pan out. It means valuing thoughtfulness and consideration over ego and truly embracing collaboration.

Leaders that are able to show vulnerability and deference towards others have an easier time attracting and retaining quality talent. When CEOs lead with a stick, employees don’t feel appreciated and won’t stay with the company long-term. And, in a job market like today’s, where employers are experiencing a massive talent crunch, your ability or inability to retain talent has an enormous impact on your organization’s success. This is particularly true of senior management teams. A highly experienced executive charged with setting corporate strategy isn’t going to tolerate an environment where they don’t have a voice or feel respected, and this problem hobbles organizations — quickly.

A number of studies now support the argument for leading with humility. Corporate growth expert Jim Collins’ “Good to Great” study tracked close to 1,500 Fortune 500 companies over a 30-year period, deducing that those that were able to improve over time and maintain a higher performance had leaders that displayed two characteristics: humility and a commitment to organizational excellence. Another study, entitled “Do humble CEOs matter?,” examined 105 IT companies and found that the more humble a CEO, the more collaborative and cooperative the senior leadership team, resulting in stronger firm performance. And, a global Catalyst study found that when employees observed selfless behavior in their managers, they felt more included in their work teams. These feelings of inclusion led to more innovation, more work output, greater efficiencies, and better teamwork.

The organizational success guru Dr. Robert Hogan believes that charismatic but hard-charging CEOs like the Steve Jobs of the world are actually successful despite themselves. Hogan points to the fact that Apple’s performance improved after Jobs left as evidence for his theory. Conversely, companies like Google and Rockwell Automation, which have embraced dialogue and altruistic leadership within their organizations, continue to reap maximum rewards.

Leaders should take steps to infuse humility into their leadership style. Here’s how you can become a more humble leader:

Get Curious

Effective leaders are lifetime learners. They often set aside time to read widely and they also make a concerted effort to learn from those around them. You don’t need to have all the answers. After all, in a global marketplace where challenges are increasingly complex, no one person can. Leadership is about working together to problem-solve, and understanding that your go-to team should be as diverse as possible. It’s now well-documented that diverse teams are more creative, therefore ambitious CEOs should go above and beyond to surround themselves with people of differing skill sets, competencies, backgrounds, cultures and genders. The more willing you are to learn from others, the more open you’ll be to new ideas, viewpoints and creative solutions that could take your business to the next level.

Get Feedback

If you’re interested in upping your leadership game, schedule opportunities to solicit employee feedback regularly. Making a concerted effort to do this keeps your employees more engaged and satisfied. It also helps you develop a better understanding of your strengths and weaknesses. Knowing the types of decisions and activities that you need the most help with is invaluable to you and your organization. It gives you a roadmap of competencies that you can work to bolster and, more importantly, it enables you to identify others within your organization whose strengths balance your weaknesses. Oftentimes, the most valuable thing a leader can do is learning to ask the right questions of the right people.

Get Honest

You don’t need to be perfect, but you do need to be honest. This entails owning up to mistakes and being willing to apologize when your judgement or behavior has been problematic. We are all human and fallible, and showing your own imperfections and vulnerability makes you more relatable. In fact, sharing your mistakes as teachable moments showcases both your personal growth and your humanity. Honesty allows for trust and inspiration, and studies have found numerous correlations between a leader’s perceived behavioral integrity and employee performance. In fact, teams that work for leaders whom they perceive to be honest are more satisfied with their jobs, experience less absenteeism, are less stressed, and report greater overall health and well-being.

Get Off Your Pedestal

Embrace key elements of Servant Leadership by developing a more selfless leadership style.  Servant-leaders share power with others. They empower those around them to learn and grow, and they’re willing to follow the lead of their colleagues when appropriate. Employees that are given ownership over their areas of responsibility are more engaged. And helping others become more competent leaders ensures that your organization can perform at its peak. A Servant Leadership mentality also makes you more aware of what you’re asking of others and keeps you from asking them to do tasks or make sacrifices that you yourself wouldn’t be willing to undertake. It encourages CEOs to lead by example and to embody the change they hope to spark within their employees. When your colleagues see you rolling up your sleeves and helping with initiatives across all levels of the organization, they’ll be more willing to do the same. Servant Leadership cultures promote satisfaction, collaboration, trust, and productivity. People will care more about their jobs, each other, and about meeting your expectations.

We live in a world that is preoccupied with celebrity and eccentricity, which is part of the reason why the Elon Musks and Steve Jobs of the world have been painted as iconic leaders. The other factor is that humble leaders are, by definition, less engaged in self-promotion, so we simply don’t hear about them as much. But humility is a leadership strength, not a weakness. It takes tremendous courage and effort to lead by example. And hopefully, as more companies begin to reimagine and redefine effective leadership, our cultural obsession with egomaniacal leaders will shift.

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