How to Cultivate Humility in Leadership

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The most effective leaders are humble.

We’ve highlighted this before. Much of it comes down to a willingness to learn and an ability to secure buy-in from teams (versus shoving agendas through without any attempts at collaboration).

That’s all good, but it does beg the question: can you cultivate humility?

The truth is that humility is more a core trait than it is a set of actions, so it’s impossible to prescribe a behavioral plan that guarantees humility. But it is possible to cultivate humility in leadership.

First: what is humility?

It’s important not to misconceive humility. It is not being overly self-deprecating. It is an accurate self-perception and a tendency to think of others first.

With that in mind, here’s how to cultivate those traits in leadership. 

1. Surround yourself with high performers.

Arrogant leaders tend to surround themselves with “a thousand helpers” (a process Jim Collins describes in Good to Great). In these scenarios, the leader holds all expertise. The helpers are people who may be adept at carrying out a leader’s wishes but would never challenge or push back against a leader’s thinking.

The first step toward cultivating humility is to take the opposite approach and surround yourself with high performers who will push back when needed

These people should be intelligent. They should be good at what they do. And they should be unafraid of sharing perspectives that are different than the ones held by leadership. 

There’s an inherent perceived danger to this, of course: if everyone else on your team is great, do you as a leader look weaker (or worse) by comparison? 

The answer is no. There is a balance to manage, yes – leaders must demonstrate confidence, must not be wishy-washy, and must not let subordinates run rampant over them. But ultimately stronger teams are closely correlated to stronger leaders, meaning that the net impact on a leader’s reputation is almost always positive. 

So, don’t let arrogance keep you from getting results. Cultivate humility and surround yourself with the best people. 

2. Let those high performers input into decisions.

Once you’ve surrounded yourself with high performers, the next exercise in cultivating humility is to let those people input into decisions.

In fact, an unwillingness to incorporate others’ ideas is one of the leading causes of new executive failure. Many new executives come in without any contextual awareness, and, as a result, ham-fistedly attempt to hammer their own bad ideas through. The results aren’t good.

Contrastingly, soliciting input from others is a humble approach that pays dividends. As leaders incorporate ideas from their teams, their teams increasingly buy in to agendas, making success more likely. 

Practically, this can be done by speaking last during decision-making processes. Humble leaders do this because they’re interested to hear others’ perspectives. Speaking first introduces bias which can corrupt the conversation.

Humble leaders are analytically curious and legitimately want to uncover the best information.

So, instead of kicking off a meeting by voicing their opinion, they seek to uncover and build on good ideas, encouraging their team to share. Only after ideas have been shared do they make the decision.

3. Take the blame and give the credit for the outcomes (as appropriate).

Finally, when their team of high performers has contributed to and executed on a decision, humble leaders take the blame and give the credit for the outcomes. 

In failure, arrogant leaders will deflect responsibility. Humble leaders will accept it and use it as a learning opportunity. And they’ll give their team an appropriate level of air cover while doing so.

In success, arrogant leaders will take all of the credit. Humble leaders will acknowledge their role while championing their teams.

It’s worth mentioning that leaders who are overly self-deprecating (those who push up to the edge on the humble side of the spectrum) can dampen their own career prospects. Things shouldn’t go this far. But, in general, these self-deprecating leaders pose much less danger to an organization than the arrogant leaders who manipulate reality for the sake of their own self-perceptions.

Ready to cultivate good leadership?

Humility isn’t just a buzzword – it works. 

If you want help cultivating humility and empowering good leadership, get in touch. At Emily Bermes + Associates, we’ve helped thousands of executives thrive in-role with measurable results. 

If you’re ready for a new approach, let’s talk.