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Is leadership humility just a fad?

30 Aug 2018 By Khalid Aziz

It’s possible to coach leaders to think less of themselves, says Khalid Aziz, but we have to understand why

There’s a shift occurring in boardrooms up and down the country. Senior executives are no longer being encouraged to display a powerful personality, but to act humbly. It’s paradoxical that humility among leaders has become so important, given that we are so conditioned to expect the opposite. 

And it is rare to encounter a CEO who is really humble. The closest we got recently was when Tim Cook acknowledged that Apple’s success was purely down to the brilliance of its employees. That became a much bigger story than the financial success Apple was reporting. As a more typically charismatic leader, would Steve Jobs have responded with the same humility if he were in that position just a few years ago? 

Humility is essential to develop today, because whether an organisation operates in the commercial or not-for-profit sector, the complex problems any leader will inevitably face require a collaborative approach to solve. It’s impossible for a leader to foster collaboration and loyalty if they believe they are superior to their colleagues, and employees will become less productive in these environments. 

Many leaders aren’t humble in the workplace because they feel the pressure to appear faultless and competent. Humility is seen as a weakness. However, when you point to role models like Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama, it’s clear how this style fosters the followship and long-term loyalty that is so essential. As Mark Carney, the Bank of England governor, commented recently, although people want leaders to be strong, they also want them to be human and admit when they don’t have all the answers. 

This is not to say that a leader should be humble all the time. Different circumstances require different responses and a really skilled leader can flex their style. When things are going well, people appreciate a leader who can show they have ‘feet of clay’ and are willing to accept failure; it endears them to their people. In a crisis, however, people look to their leaders for certainty. They will appreciate someone who appears, outwardly at least, to be strong and in control, even though deep down they may be as worried as everyone else about the crisis and how it can be overcome. 

Humility isn’t just relevant at the very top of the leadership ladder. It’s just as important for middle managers to demonstrate as it is for the CEO – perhaps even more so. “Problems with their immediate line manager” is the most commonly cited reason by employees when they leave a job and the constant churn creates huge disruption. Organisations should be mindful of this when they are talent spotting for future ‘high potentials’. How many organisations have promoted aggressive go-getters who exude a ‘master of the universe’ attitude, only to see them crash and burn? Leadership is less about the individual as it is about creating followership. 

As a leadership coach, I am often asked whether it is possible to coach an individual to develop humility and the short answer is yes. Most people already have humility inside them, but many leaders have learned to behave the opposite way and adopt the traditional ‘hero’ persona instead. They will tend to only display it if there’s a genuinely humble culture permeating the organisation. 

One very effective method to coach for humility involves inviting the coachee to put themselves in the shoes of the audience, and a coach can role play this to great effect. Once the individual starts to appreciate how it feels to be on the receiving end of someone who appears to ‘know it all’ they start to understand that humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.

Another way of looking at humility is to see it as openness to new ideas. It shouldn’t be viewed as the latest fad; but an essential part of any great leader’s armoury.  Like other leadership characteristics, when used appropriately it can deliver compelling results. Businesses which embrace it thrive, because it creates buy-in at all levels and maximises engagement. We all like to have an opportunity to share our ideas and be heard, even though we know that not everyone will agree with or act upon them.

Khalid Aziz is founder and chairman of Aziz Corporate

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