BusinessDay
NigeriaDecides2023

Leading with humility

Over the past century, behavioural science and organisational experts have been preoccupied with the notion of leaders and leadership. This is evidenced by the search of the word ‘leader and leadership’ on Google and other search engines.

However, contemporary perspectives indicate that leaders have begun to take certain widespread notoriety, having gained a charismatic-like appeal and a significant increase in social status, much in the same way that music stars, actors or sports professionals have become icons in the cult of celebrity that surrounds them.

Leaders are now regarded as idols, heroes, saviours, and demigods. Leaders have become imbued with a saviour-like essence in a world that constantly needs saving.

This glorification of leaders has increased despite continuing evidence that the actions of many leaders are far from heroic.

This apparent obsession with the charismatic appeal of individual leaders stands in contrast with a small but growing call for humility in leadership.

Humility has long been a subject of contemplation across numerous cultures. Since all virtues represent an acquired disposition to do that which is right or good, consequently humility is thought of as that crest of human excellence between superiority and submissiveness.

Drawing upon this understanding, humility is seen as a personal orientation founded on a willingness to see the self accurately and a propensity to put oneself in perspective. Hence, authentic humility involves neither self-abasement nor overly positive self-regard.

This involves three connected but distinct dimensions including, namely, self-awareness, openness, and transcendence.

Further, research has provided strong evidence for the value of humility in leadership. It has been discovered that consistently high performing organisations share several important characteristics, the most counter-intuitive of which was that great companies were led by Level-five leaders; that is, individuals who possess a blend of humility and strong personal will. These Level-five leaders are still ambitious, but their primary focus was the success of their organisation rather than their personal successes.

Leadership by those who possess true humility often brings significantly greater benefits to the organisation relative to benefits realised from leaders with the ‘celebrity’ status.

Specifically, the superior performance of the organisation led by a ‘humble’ leader is continually sustained over long periods, often spanning decades.

Second, the organisation is quite often the benchmark performer in its industry. Third, if the humble leader retires, resigns, or otherwise leaves the helm of the organisation, the sustained superior performance of the organisation continues long past the tenure of the humble leader.

Therefore, humility in leadership serves several potential purposes. First, humility influences leaders to behave in a manner that is primarily others-enhancing, rather than self-enhancing.

Second, possession of humility shields the leader from needing to receive public adulation and causes them to avoid such attention. Similarly, humility as a leadership trait contributes to organisational performance through its impact on organisational learning and organisational resilience.

Given its potential importance in generating organisational and leader effectiveness, humility offers a new lens through which to view and understand the leadership process.

Read also: How to get your people to trust your leadership – 2

When you are a leader, no matter how long you’ve been in your role or how hard the journey was to get there, you are merely overhead unless you’re bringing out the best in your employees. Unfortunately, many leaders lose sight of this.

Power can cause leaders to become overly obsessed with outcomes and control and treat their employees as a means to an end. As I have discovered, this ramps up people’s fear of not hitting targets and losing bonuses, and consequently, people stop feeling positive emotions, and their drive to experiment and learn is stifled.

For example, let us look at the case of a supply chain company in the Gambia. We analysed that the engagement of its drivers, who deliver baking powder to thousands of customers daily, was dropping. At the same time, management became increasingly metric-driven to reduce costs and improve delivery times.

Each week, team leaders held performance debriefs with drivers and went through a list of problems, complaints, and errors with a clipboard and pen. This was not inspiring on any level to either party. Eventually, the drivers, many of whom had worked for the company for decades, became resentful of the leaders because of this approach.

This type of top-down leadership is outdated and, more importantly, counter-productive. Such leaders make achieving their desired outcomes more difficult by focusing too much on control and end goals and not enough care and empathy for their people. The key is to help people feel purposeful, motivated, and energised to bring their best selves to work.

There are many ways to do this, and one of the best ways is to adopt the humble mindset of a servant leader. Leaders ought to view their role as serving employees as they explore and grow, providing tangible and emotional support as they do so.

The fact is that servant-leaders must have the humility, courage, and insight to admit that they can benefit from the expertise of others who have less power than them.

They actively seek the ideas and unique contributions of the employees that they serve. This is how servant leaders create a culture of learning and an atmosphere that encourages followers to become the very best they can be.

It is pertinent to note that humility and servant leadership do not imply that leaders should have low self-esteem or take on an attitude of servility. Instead, servant leadership emphasises that the responsibility of a leader is to increase the ownership, autonomy, and commitment of followers by encouraging them to think for themselves and execute their ideas within the boundaries of the organisational values and objectives.

Please look out for a continuation of this article.

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