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The Humble Leader

| May 8, 2018

by Jim Bruce

The MOR Leaders Program employs a leadership model which calls for leaders to focus on

  • providing direction – establishing vision, developing strategies, and coping with change;
  • aligning people – communicating direction, engaging people in implementation, and building commitment; and
  • motivating them to do the work – “holding up the banner,” coaching and empowering, and recognizing and rewarding success.

This is a very helpful starting point for a discussion about leadership, focusing, as it does, on the “what” of leadership. 
Another helpful vantage point is to think about the leader’s demeanor, his or her manner, the way he or she goes about leading.  Dan Cable,1 professor of organizational behavior at the London Business School notes that too often leaders can overly emphasize the power that comes with their role, focusing too intently on outcomes and control, and in the end seeing their team members primarily as a means to an end.  When this happens, he noted, unease and fear increase, and positive feelings about the leader’s work, along with any desire to experiment and learn decreases.
Cable argues that perhaps the best way to help people bring their best selves to work feeling purposeful, motivated, and energized is to adopt the humble mindset of a servant leader.  The phrase “servant leadership” was first used by Robert Greenleaf in his 1970 essay, “The Servant as Leader.”2  From Greenleaf’s point of view, the great leader is always a servant first.  And, from that vantage point, the servant leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people in the communities they lead.
The key question, then, is what are the skills and actions of a servant leader, a humble leader?  As you might expect, there has been a lot written to address this question.  Here are eight sets of actions and behaviors, drawn primarily from the essays listed below in the section Further Reading, you might consider exploring:

  1. Humble leaders are less focused on themselves and more focused on those whom they lead.
  2. Humble leaders listen and are curious;  they ask questions;  they embrace uncertainty.
  3. They always see themselves as a part of something much larger.  They gratefully put their knowledge to use and constantly look for opportunities to learn and grow. 
  4. They are willing and do get into the trenches to help.  They make sure that ego is not an issue. 
  5. They make sure that each of their team members knows that they care, sees real investment by their leader in their learning and development, sees appropriate responsibilities delegated to them, and knows that their leaders are committed to the recognition and celebration of their successes.
  6. Humble leaders readily admit their mistakes and expect their team members also to do so.  They see mistakes as teachable moments.  Admitting mistakes is necessary both for their remediation and for everyone to learn.
  7. Humble leaders don’t over react to conflict.  They are tolerant, sensitive, helpful, and accepting of differences.  They engage in dialog, not debate.  They work things out.
  8. And, humble leaders role model being a follower.  To empower others to lead, leaders must reverse their role and let another take the lead on occasion.  This will permit the humble leader to enter the issue being considered from a different perspective.

Legendary basketball coach John Wooden once said, “It’s amazing how much can be accomplished if no one is concerned about who gets the credit.”  That’s the way it is in teams led by humble leaders.
Building off Wooden’s observation, I’d like to challenge you to take a few minutes to ask whether one or more of these practices of humble leaders might be something that you’d like to begin to do with your team. 
Make it a great week.  .  .  .  jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

  1. Dan Cable, How Humble Leadership Really Works, Harvard Business Review, April 2018.
  2. Robert K. Greenleaf, The Servant as Leader, The Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, 1970. 

Further Reading:

  1. Cheryl Williamson, The Importance of Humility in Leadership, Forbes Coaches Council, September 2017.
  2. Cheryl Williamson, Servant Leadership:  How To Put Your People Before You, Forbes Coaches Council, June 2017.
  3. Ashley Merryman, Leaders Are More Powerful When They’re Humble, New Research Shows, Washington Post, December 2016.
  4. Jeanine Prime, Elizabeth Salib, The Best Leaders Are Humble Leaders, Harvard Business Review, May 2014.
  5. Craig Impelman, The Qualities of a Humble Leader,, December 2017.