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Humble Leadership

| July 14, 2020

by David Sweetman

Humble Leadership

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is by Dr. David Sweetman, MOR Associates Leadership Coach and Consultant.  David may be reached at [email protected].]
As I think about our Tuesday Reading topics over the past month, a theme that comes to mind is humility.  Whether it is working through the fast-paced changes as we have had to Respond-Adapt-Transform due to the pandemic, or understanding and confronting systemic racism, or something as foundational as building relationships with others, each requires humility to be successful.
What does it mean to be a humble leader?  For our answer, we turn to the experts on this topic, Edgar and Peter Schein.  Much of today’s reading draws from their work.  Humble leadership challenges the idea of “professional distance” in our work relationships, instead focusing on reducing the psychological distance between us.  This enables us to more thoroughly build foundations of trust in order to collaboratively solve the complex challenges of our world.  In our present era of “social distancing” the idea of psychological closeness takes on an even more pronounced sense of urgency.
Key to humble leadership from Schein’s work is to personize relationships.  That’s not a typo. To personize a relationship means to build a work relationship together, understanding the whole person in addition to their formal role in the organization.  It is consciously putting the person front and center in the relationship.  It involves the mutual process of investing yourself in others, and others investing in you.  It involves sharing beyond the scope of work, making yourself in some ways vulnerable to the other.  This dynamic is especially present in our workshops when individuals share their leadership journeys.
The idea behind personizing is that by getting to know people, acknowledging and understanding each other as humans, you in turn build trust and create a stronger and more effective team, or for a cohort it can mean creating a more cohesive leadership community. The team then has enhanced abilities to make and carry out decisions.  Humble leadership is therefore not an approach for quick results, but is one that builds long-term capabilities based on relationships.
To be clear, personizing is not simply about being nice and giving people a space to be heard.  Rather, it is understanding and respecting the person for who they are and what they bring.  This trusting relationship is then a strong force when propelling action and results.  Also, personizing is not to be confused with personalization.  While personalization is about customizing for others, personizing is about accepting of others.
The results of humble leadership are extremely positive, especially in circumstances where we are faced with highly complex tasks where we are highly interdependent upon each other.  Part of the humility in humble leadership is realizing that individually we do not have all the answers.  Rather, collectively the answer is in the room (or Zoom, as it is for many of us these days).  Not only is the answer in the group, but also a fuller understanding of the context, of all those bits and pieces of the environment that we work in that may alter our decisions and actions depending on any number of circumstances.
We are right to envision humble leadership as facilitating a discussion.  Facilitating a humble leadership experience involves asking the right questions when we know them.  However, we must also acknowledge that sometimes we may not even know the right questions to ask.  We are therefore also a “convening of sharing” in order to facilitate others asking (and answering) the right questions.  Through this process, active listening and the ability to synthesize ideas becomes an important pivot point from discussion and understanding toward outcomes.  As in any form of leadership, for humble leadership to be effective requires the important connection from discussion and understanding to action and results.
To grow and evolve our capabilities as a humble leader fundamentally requires something we focus a lot on in MOR programs: building relationships.  Relationships are currency, and models like the Four I’s – initiating with others, inquiring with them, investing in them, and ultimately sharing in influence with them – align well to growing our capabilities as humble leaders.  So too, ensuring those relationships are built in a way that others feel psychologically safe – accepted and respected for who they are without fear of negative consequences for sharing their perspective.  Relationships include both individuals and also the collective relationship of the group.  Part of the relationship at the group level is intentionality in collectively shaping the processes and norms of that group.
Working in silos.   What a chill that idea can send down our spines as we think about the lost opportunities for collaboration.  However, the ideas of humble leadership are scalable.  The importance of personizing doesn’t just refer to members of a team or group, but extends across teams and groups.  By generating mutual understanding and personization across groups, we can break down silos and generate trust to accomplish even more.  The many stories we’ve heard and seen in the past few months of this happening in universities across the country has been inspiring.  Enabling this cross-team collaboration is our unifying challenge of confronting COVID-19.  However, we still have many challenges and opportunities ahead, and a humble leadership approach can help in our continued journey.
There are many large, complex challenges facing our organizations at this time.  Our continued response to the COVID-19 pandemic, understanding and confronting systemic racism, financial pressures many organizations are facing, and much more.  How can we use the perspective and toolset offered by humble leadership to better confront those challenges?  What is one specific technique that stood out to you from today’s reading that you could apply this week to a complex challenge you are facing?  How can you further personize relationships within your work team throughout the course of this month?
Please make your day a leaderful one for you and your team,