The power of humble leadership

Part 1 of the Series "The humble and powerful leader": How humility and leadership go together – an introduction

Leadership and humility - really?

Many people wince, when they hear the words "humility" and "leadership" combined. The concepts seem too far apart. Humility and leadership - really? We love to greedily peruse - with a delicious shudder - all the research about the dark side of leaders. The so-called dark triad, to which many managers seem belong. It is very dark in this triad with narcissists, Machiavellians and psychopaths.  The press writes that their proportion among managers is far higher than among the population as a whole. The employees acknowledge this with nods of silent suffering.

Even if the impact of these three types of negative leaders is measurably negative, it seems to many, as if it is primarily those who can be successful in companies. Who else would be willing to slog away at this hard job of leading, unless their own inflated ego demanded it?

And it is a select few that are willing to become managers in the first place. One study from 2014 pointed out that only 30 percent of all employees want to become managers. And only 7 percent want to become board members. BCG published an even worse assessment in 2020: Only 9 percent of all employees, they claim, actually want to become any sort of manager. So it must be a very peculiar group that fights for this prominent role in the company. A very strange breed that wants to claim for themselves the explicit power that still comes with leadership positions even in our day and age of agility.

The question arises: can humble, polite or modest people ever actually succeed in becoming leaders? If they want to? Corporate structures, internal politics, the demands of investors - surely only narcissists, Machiavellians and psychopaths can master all this. Correct?

And even if such a luminous being as a humble manager were to make it: Can he or she motivate employees, implement visions, satisfy board members and stakeholders? If he or she is humble, will they not automatically be labelled as weak and be a failure?

How easy it is to think of narcissistic managers!

How easy it is to think of narcissistic managers and how difficult it is to think of humble ones. Look at how brilliantly a Steve Jobs shone, who carelessly insulted his way through his company. Anyone familiar with Walter Isaacson's biography of him knows that he was neither modest, humble nor appreciative. And was perhaps appreciated as a great leader for that very reason.

Similar narcissism can be found with Adam Neumann, the former CEO of We Work, who lived self-focus, jetted around the world and vastly overestimated his business model as well as himself. Or let us remember Travis Kalanick, former Uber boss, who neither noticed nor cared about others and created such an aggressive working atmosphere that it actually finally broke his neck.

Should that not spook you and lead you to the conclusion that there is no room for a different style in management?

Yet there is room for humble leaders!

Put like that, however, it is blindingly obvious that there is room for fundamentally different ways of leading. First of all, Neumann and Kalanick have failed. Secondly, who has not read positive things about the leadership style of a Satya Nadella at Microsoft, who not only talks about empathy and growth mindset but also seems to embody it.? Or about Tim Cook at Apple, who leads democratically, calmly and by asking questions repeatedly and is actually willing to listen to the answers?

Think about the executives you know - are there really that many on the dark side of power? Is there not a large group of managers who are simply trying to do their best? Are there not many who put their team first and limit themselves to setting the broad parameters for the work to be done, communicating purpose, removing obstacles and appreciating the team? Are there not also many of these at the very highest levels of the company?

Of course, many of them exist, and we will see that many are humble according the definition that research has agree upon. But are they really successful? Measurably successful?

Humility works! Remember "From Good to Great"

To answer this, let us firstly, take a look at the management classic from 2001: "From Good to Great" by Jim Collins. A quick reminder: Collins asked himself the question: Are there companies that are successful in the long run? Not just for a few years, but for at least 15 years?

If these could be found, what was it that sets them apart from the rest? Collins and his team looked at a total of 1,435 good companies. And found 11 great ones.  These then were on average a full 6.9 times better than the market, more than twice as good as the famed GE company under the leadership of Jack Welsh.

What did Collins find at these 11 companies? Besides some principles which he called Flywheel and Hedgehog? He found a pile of CEOs whom no one knew anything about. Who did not seek the press, wildly thumping their chest. Who were no alphas and neither fanatically admired nor even known in public. Who instead led their companies quietly, with a strong will and great humility.

These CEOs were very clear and relentless in what they wanted. At the same time, they were humble and completely clear in themselves that they were very limited as individuals. They humbly attributed a large role to their employees, circumstances, and also just plain good luck. They did not want to take credit for themselves and their own role, and were simply driven to achieve the best for their company, not the best for themselves and their own ego.

Even if not all of the 11 companies from 2001 are still outstanding in 2022, Jim Collins has shown that humble leaders can exist and that they are successful. Even more successful than other types of leader.

What this blog series is about

This blog series will be a deep-dive on the topic of "humility and leadership" and will put lots of meat on the story of humble leadership. It will not only give you a clear definition of humility, but also share with you the measurable effects of humility as well as the road blocks on the path to becoming a humble manager.

Since approximately 2012 numerous researchers have not only neatly defined the term humility, but also examined the effectiveness of humble behavior.  More than 200 studies involving more than 35,000 executives and employees have shed light on the topic from many different angles.

The research answers questions such as these: What does a humble manager bring to his or her employees? Does it make them stronger? Does it weaken them? Does humility generate a better culture in the company? Does it result in better financial results? What happens to the leader?  Do they personally gain from humility? Are they seen as stronger leaders? Are there limits to humility?

I am sure that most of you, thinking about this, will immediately come up with many ideas, why and how humility will be impactful. And I hope that you will find all the answers that you seek in the upcoming contributions. But first you need to understand, why it is I that am actually talking and writing about this topic?

Why me?

Why me? Because I have not only reviewed these 200 plus studies about humility, am in conversation with other researchers, but have also conducted numerous studies of my own. Approximately 3,500 participants worldwide have participated in my research. Numerous studies are still ongoing, and my goal is to build a large database which every company and every manager can use to compare themselves and understand yet better understand where the individual road blocks on the way to humility lie.

I am also speaking out on the topic because over the past few years I have interviewed more than 160 board members and top managers on humility, and have gathered not only insights for research, but also wonderful stories, examples and quotes.

I have also been able to test the practical relevance and applicability of humility while teaching in numerous companies.

And last but not least, I am deep-diving into this topic since my book on the power of humility in a leader was published last year in German by Springer. An updated German as well as an English version will follow promptly in 2022.

So I look forward to sharing many details on humility with you in the coming weeks and months. We will look at the definition of humility, what the status quo is, what effects humble behaviour has, what stumbling blocks should be avoided on the way, and what if any limits humility has.

There will be many studies, many stories, from research and from my interviews. If you personally would like to contribute to the research by participating in one of the studies or by being interviewed, or simply by using my resources to look at humility in yourself and your people, please contact me.

For now, I wish you a good week and want to leave you with the seminal and positive words of American author Rick Warren:

"Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it's thinking of yourself less"