What does a great leader look like on the inside and why is it important? In this five-part series, we will be looking at “Great Leadership from the Inside Out” … because what is within you as a leader determines what comes out of your leadership.
What are five characteristics you would name if asked to describe a great leader? Perhaps terms like visionary, confident, decisive, motivated, disciplined, or resilient come to mind. But what about “humble”? Humility is usually not at the top of the list, yet James Sipe and Don Frick put it in the spotlight in their classic book Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership. They observe that “the practice of Servant Leadership as embodied in the trait of humility requires courage of intentional vulnerability and voluntary surrender of one’s ego for the sake of others and the organization.”
The importance of humility in a leader and the powerful effect it can have on an organization was brilliantly demonstrated in a recent change management session that I (Tim) facilitated. Thirty senior leaders participated in the session via Zoom (the screen looked like Hollywood Squares on steroids). After we had discussed change management models and such, there was an open Q&A time.
One leader asked to speak, and his first words were “I’m struggling…”
He proceeded to explain his situation with complete openness. He was new to the company and was the leader of a new function within the organization. Couple that with the massive change the business was going through, and he was floundering.
Pause for a moment to consider this. This leader was being transparent in front of thirty senior leaders in the organization about the difficulties he was experiencing. That could be considered quite a risk. In his shoes, would you have willingly made that admission in that time and place before all those people?
I thanked him for having the courage (do you hear that word?) to be vulnerable enough to outline his situation. Then I called on the other leaders present, particularly those who were most senior, to come to his aid and give him the benefit of their experience.
I savor the memory of what happened next.
The energy level in the session went through the roof as the man’s fellow leaders started sharing their wisdom and insights (sometimes learned through the school of hard knocks), the tools and techniques they found helpful, and various approaches they would recommend trying. The outpouring of support was so strong it was almost tangible.
This leader chose to be humble and admit that he needed help. To use Sipe and Frick’s words, he voluntarily surrendered his ego for the sake of others and the organization. Take a good look at the results:
- The leader is now better equipped to lead. He has been armed with hard-earned lessons from his fellow leaders that he can employ to lead his people effectively through the change process.
- Other leaders in the organization benefited. With all the great ideas and insights that were spoken, I guarantee that other leaders on the call also left the session better equipped to lead.
- The leader received crucial affirmation. During the discussion, the leader shared some actions he had taken that had met with success. His fellow leaders affirmed this, reinforcing his confidence in his capabilities.
- The leadership team as a whole is stronger and more united. Relationships were forged and strengthened during that call as the leaders came together. Those relationships are going to contribute to the company’s continued success.
It is common to think, “If I am humble and vulnerable and admit that I need help, people are going to look down on me and judge me.” The truth is just the opposite. As this leader proved, admitting that you don’t feel equipped is exactly what will help you become equipped to do your best for the organization.
That is the incredible power of humility.