Some more details on humility and leadership

We have by now once seen the definition of humility in the previous posts. As many of you will probably have to say humbly, that is not sufficient to truly understand what humility is all about.
Therefore, in this blog, I want to shed some more light on what humility is a before we delve more deeply in a few weeks’ time into each subelement and the stumbling blocks on the way.

The definition again as a reminder:

Research says that someone leads with humility when he/she

  • Accurately identifies his/her own strengths and weaknesses and shows them where it makes sense for the bigger picture – not for the own ego
  • openly appreciates the contributions and strengths of others
  • is always a willing learner as well as open-minded
  • understands that he/she is only a small part of a larger whole, finite, easily replaceable and favored by luck and circumstances.

In my interviews with more than 170 board members and top managers, I asked which of these four, from their perspective, is the most difficult for their own employees, managers, and themselves.

First, reflect on what you would say. About your employees, but also about your colleagues, your bosses or even yourself. Is there a problem with really knowing your strengths and weaknesses? Appreciating others? Being open to learning? Or understanding that we are only a small part of a bigger whole?

Here is what the others had to say: 41 percent stated that it is hardest to really see your own strengths and weaknesses. 25 percent think the struggle to see the bigger picture is rarely mastered. 11 percent see a problem with appreciation and 6 percent with being open and willing to learn. Fast thinkers among you will have noticed that this does not add up to 100 percent. First, kudos for doing the math so quickly. Secondly, the explanation: The delta is due to the fact that another 17 percent identified more than one breaking point. Most of those said that the picture is bleak on all four fronts

So let us take a brief look at the individual points.

Recognizing your own strengths and weaknesses

Let me start off with an anecdote: One of my interviewees had been offered the opportunity to move up to the next level in the company. This would have meant overall group responsibility for 80,000 employees, and not "merely" for the national company with its 10.000 employees. He was about to accept the position when he saw a young colleague talk in a meeting. He saw his colleague's vision and drive and realized that, although he himself was strong, he was a slightly weaker candidate in comparison to this colleague. He then asked his boss to promote this colleague, which happened.

Now that is quite something! A person who courageously looked inside himself, looked at himself and recognized himself as weaker in this situation - and this is hugely important - only in this relative situation, was able to overcome his ego and act for the good of the company.

Therefore, it becomes clear that the issue of strengths and weaknesses is always a relative one. In one team I may be the best, in another the weakest.

Are you allowed to show these weaknesses? We will look at this more in a later blog - here only briefly: Yes. You are not only allowed but actually required to show your weaknesses. Why? Research clearly says that employees see the weaknesses or mistakes anyway and need it that the manager addresses the obvious elephants. In a 2016 study by the Dale Carnegie Institute, 84 percent of the 3,300 employees surveyed stressed that it was vital for them that their managers admitted when they were wrong. This was even more important than other essential topics such as "listening" and "appreciating."

So two key take aways: When you look at your strengths and weaknesses, these are always relative. Secondly, it is vital that you show both to your employees. How you can do this without losing face, we will see in a later blog.

Appreciating others

The second point of humility is about appreciating others. Again, an anecdote: The CEO issued a press release saying he was "the biggest farmer in the region" who had " by far most pigs in the barn."

How much do you think the employees felt appreciated in this case? Exactly. Not at all. What a creepy post, when research clearly shows that people work much better with appreciation and that it is oftentimes a few appreciative words that are far more important than the financial packet. Unless, of course, the financial is also seen as a form of appreciation.

In my research, by the way, there is a very clear gap when it comes to appreciation - and interestingly, the participants of the study themselves recognize it. I always ask three questions: How much do you feel appreciated, how much do you want to be appreciated, and how much do you appreciate others. This concerns superiors, colleagues and, where appropriate, employees and customers.

On a scale of 1 - 10, the average employee considers themselves appreciated by their manager with an acceptable 7 out of 10. Yet if you look at the Net Promoter Score this is not good enough. A quick reminder, in the NPS those who rate 9 or 10 are considered true promoters, while those who rate 7 and 8 are considered as indifferent.

What do the employees want. Honestly, I would have thought they all would want a 10. Interestingly, an 8 is enough for them - perhaps this is the realization that work is just one part of life and that you can also get appreciation from outside of it.

Nevertheless, the delta shows that there is room for improvement when it comes to appreciating others. 

However, there is yet far greater room for improvement when it comes to one's own actions: On average, those surveyed only appreciated their managers, colleagues or employees with a score of 6 out of 10.  That is down in the dumps and quite depressing! The only good point is that people seem to be less overconfident when it comes to appreciation – they are aware of the fact that they can do better. So let us hope that they learn to do this!

Open and willing to learn

The third point is about always being open and willing to learn. Only 6 percent see a problem here, but I believe this is the segment, where the lack of humility typically only becomes obvious at second glance.

Why do I say this? Look at the following study. 60 percent of managers complain that they have never received any training on leadership. That is sad and speaks volumes about the lack of a learning culture in many companies. But the more pertinent question is actually the following: How many of these executives  took care of training themselves? How many even reached for their own wallets in order to empower themselves for their new job? For the job that they have consciously taken on? A tiny small percentage. So people seem to pay more lip service to voluntary and continuous learning instead of actually doing it.

In addition, there are many who proudly say of themselves that they cannot do this or that - be it internal politics or storytelling or cold calling. Of course, not everyone has to be able to do everything. But the question is, should not everyone want to be able to do - I repeat - want to be able to do - everything that the role they have voluntarily accepted demands?

What does this mean in concrete terms? Well, if my position in the company requires me to "do politics," then I have to learn how to play political games. If my position requires Excel or statistics or storytelling, then I need to learn that.

This latter point seems to have been an issue at BMW. In his early years, the former CEO Harald Krüger shone with a democratic management style which was very well received. Then times changed, With Tesla on the rise, BMW lost direction, vision and cohesion. Now Krüger should have learnt how to excel in the areas of story-telling, vision and charisma. This he did not do. Instead, he continued in a lacklustre fashion with his old democratic leadership style. And had to be replaced.

We will see later if and how you can add something like charisma to your repertoire – let it suffice to say here that everyone wishing to grow in humility should analyse how genuine their desire to learn actually is.

A small part of a bigger picture

And last but not least, the fourth point of humility is about understanding that you are only a small part of a bigger picture. And here I also have a wonderful anecdote. One executive told me how she had taken over the CEO position. The stated goal in the interview process was to successfully bring the company into the digital age. When she took on the job, things turned out to be very different. The company was neither an innovation case, nor a digitalization case, but a simple and messy turnaround case. So the next few months passed trying to find a buyer for the struggling company. In the end, two offers were on the table: one buyer would save a third of the jobs, including the executive position of the CEO. The second buyer would take on all employees EXCEPT the CEO. You can guess what happened: In fact, it took the executive no time at all to accept the second offer in the interest of the bigger picture.

Now those are the four sub-elements of humility in fast forward using some stories and research, in order for you to get a better picture. Each has its own stumbling blocks which everyone must be aware of in themselves and be willing to tackle.

In the next few posts, we will first look at what humility can do and then in a few weeks we will go yet deeper into the four sub-elements that we have glanced at today.

Happy humility to you