The Loop

Leadership and Management: The Subtle Art of Humility

Filed under: Training & Leadership Development

In an organizational culture, it is often the case that those in positions of power seem brash, confident, and bigger than life. And yet, there are more modest, humbler folks who have remarkable influence without all of the bravado. Which would you rather be? Which would you rather develop for leadership management in your organization?

According to a study by the University of Oklahoma in 2011, while confidence tends to be a quality associated with strong leaders, excessive confidence has proven to be detrimental to a leader's performance. In a recent blog at the Harvard Business Review Blog Network, authors John Dame and Jeffrey Gedmin observed that the understated quality of humility frequently yields loyalty among staff and better teamwork.

While comparing the chest-thumping confident with the quieter, more humble ranks offers quite a study in contrasting styles, the authors hasten to point out that "humility has nothing to do with being meek, weak, or indecisive." People with humility tend to listen to, encourage, promote, and respect others more. In many areas of management, these are very strong traits indeed.

The question, however, is can you develop education leadership to train for the subtle art of humility? To this end, Dame and Gedmin provide ideas companies can incorporate into their executive development programs to foster greater humility within their corporate culture. The bullets that follow are suggestions for activities based on these ideas designed to help train leaders in the art of humility.

Know what you don't know. Instead of being a jack of all trades and a master of nothing, master the art of recognizing subject matter experts and utilizing their vast knowledge to help you make better informed decisions.

  • Make a list of subject matter experts in your department and their areas of expertise
  • Make a list of topics in which you do not consider yourself well-versed, and consider how you can work with others to develop both yours and their expertise

Practice being humble. No matter how exalted your position, acknowledge your more humble beginnings and tap the experience that brought you to this point in your career. Without that sense of history, you can lose perspective on what is important and what is merely pomp and circumstance.

  • Ask trainees to write out a flow chart of their development – what jobs they held and what they learned in each
  • Ask trainees to write or share a humbling experience in their past and what they learned from it – and what they might have done differently in that situation

Never underestimate the competition. During the 1960s, Avis found a way to effectively tout its second place status in the car rental industry with the ad slogan, "When you're No. 2, you try harder."

This was a great way to demonstrate that if you're at the top of your industry, you're the target that everyone else is trying to beat. Never rest upon your laurels.

  • Have trainees make a list of competitors and respective traits in which those companies are stronger or potentially a threat to your organization

Embrace and promote a spirit of service. Employees who know the most about your business can see right through a leader only interested in his own success.

  • Make a list of past accomplishments and beside each one, note other employees you credit for helping you achieve those successes.

Encourage ideas among all staff members, not just the ones assigned to the task. You never know where or from whom the next big idea will come.

  • List examples – anywhere, not just within your company – in which someone came up with an idea that led to tremendous success.

Leaders don't need to know everything, but they should know what questions to ask. Training your leaders to be curious, humble, and not afraid to admit they don't know something will go a long way to developing respectful employee management relationships among their coworkers and direct reports.

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