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Admittedly, humility is a trite topic when we’re talking about leadership. It gets lots of lip service, but less practice. Humility sounds wonderful as a characteristic, but many people disbelieve it has real power. And real power is largely what folks clamor to obtain. Those who have it can be desperate to hang onto it.
Making decisions. That’s the name of the game. We want power, control, and authority. We want to make the decision and issue orders. There’s no place for humility when that’s the objective. So we may think.
Let me tell you what prompted today’s show.
Before the pandemic shut us all down I was engaged with a number of groups about making a leadership presentation. They had similar desires – growing and developing leadership that could propel them forward. Each group had so-called leaders, but each group felt leadership was largely ineffective.
At the heart of the conversations about how I might be able to help them was culture, a term I insisted we talk about it. Specifically, I wanted to hear their own description of the culture – the environment, the feelings, the opinions of the group members.
Here are some of the words and phrases used to describe the cultures. Keep in mind, this is how THEY described themselves – their own culture.
“Participation is sparse.”
“Some are always chasing the spotlight for attention and power.”
“Most of us don’t speak up. Ever.”
“We’re told our opinions matters, but nobody listens so most of the time we just keep quiet.”
“We’re told what to do. Nobody ever asks us anything.”
“Decisions come down without any discussion.”
“You can’t have a conversation because it feels like people have their mind made up.”
Sound’s inviting, huh?
Sadly, it describes too many groups and teams. Long ago I figured out that leadership challenges largely stem from how people view authority. And how badly some seek authority.
In my coaching practice, I’m blessed because I always – 100% of the time – am commissioned to work with high achievers and performers. I don’t do remedial work. Nothing wrong with it, it’s just not my calling. By the time I was 25 I learned I wasn’t a zero to 60 guy, but instead was a 60 to 240 guy. That is, I’m innately focused on taking an existing performance and finding paths forward to even higher performance. It was true in the businesses I operated and it’s been true in the teams I’ve assembled, and now in the people I coach. For me, the biggest question is, “How much better can it be?”
I say that because it’s rare for me to encounter a client with a poor view of authority. My clients all lean very heavily into recognizing their responsibility and are very intent on upping their game. Along the way, we almost always engage in conversations about lessons learned from the bad bosses they had along the way. Invariably we have a discussion about authority and why some people see it as decision-making rather than service. It’s at the heart of many leadership challenges because too many bosses lack the humility to lead.
My focus on leadership humility centers on curiosity, compassion, and understanding. These are the path forward for all leaders, even those who are already high achievers and high performers. We can all improve our abilities in these 3 areas.
The reason I focus on this triad of traits is because humility fosters these and lack of humility erodes them. The real focal point of humility? Others. When it’s not about others it’s about us, but not in a selfish way. It’s about our willingness to question ourselves. It’s about our commitment to our own learning, growth and improvement so we can help others do the same.
Permit a made up story to illustrate.
The entire team is assembled in the room. There is no boss present, only peers. This is a meeting to discuss an opportunity. A challenge. Take your pick. The purpose of the meeting is to have the first discussion about it. These people are present to provide their insights on the matter. Each of them has a perspective that could be valuable to the overall clarity.
As the meeting begins one person, the self-appointed leader of the group, takes command of the meeting. He begins by stating his views on the matter as well as his suggestions on what should be done. When he winds down he asks if anybody else has anything to offer. He’s instantly shut down more than half the group who simply want to leave and be done with this meeting. Most are silently frustrated by his obvious quest to be in charge. But some brave soul pipes up and tactfully states a few opposing viewpoints. Mr. “I’m In Charge” immediately discounts these opposing views, attempting to point out why they’re not the best course. Or, as is quite often the case, Mr. “I’m In Charge” ignores the comments altogether and then asks, “Anybody else?” It’s as though the first person never uttered a word. This teaches the rest of the group that there’s little point in speaking up because you’re not going to be heard anyway.
This happens in group meetings held in person or virtually all over the globe. It happens when no boss is present or when the boss is present. Most people go along to get along. And all along the way people are dying inside, along with their brilliant insights, ideas and suggestions. All because somebody driven by their own desire to be in charge lacks humility.
No curiosity about what others are thinking or feeling.
No compassion for anybody but themselves.
No desire to understand.
But I’ve found it begins with no urge, willingness, or commitment to questioning themselves. No desire or willingness to get better because they’re already the smartest person present. How can you improve when you’re already the best? 😀
That’s the great thing about high performers. They don’t have to convinced. They already believe in the power of questioning themselves – and in having others question them. They already know the power of the collective inside whatever room they’re in is infinitely wiser than they are alone. High achievers are committed to finding ways to better leverage the power of others. That’s why these are the people I serve!
But let’s end with some potential bits of help, some tips that might provide a path forward even for those who are bent like Mr. “I’m In Charge.”
- Don’t be the first to express your viewpoint. Hold your peace. Resist telling others what you think or how you feel. Respect others by first respecting yourself. Enough to keep quiet.
- Ask others what they think or how they feel. Solicit the insight from others with the aim of learning and understanding.
- Try to have compassion and understanding for where they’re coming from, even if (and especially if) it opposes how you think. You don’t have to agree in order to embrace curiosity, compassion, and understanding.
- Solicit the quietest people in the room. They’re often the more thoughtful, deliberate people. They could be the shyest, too. No matter, lead the way to make sure more folks are involved.
Humility is the path forward for YOU and everybody else. Nobody loses. It makes you more approachable. Safer. It fosters more insights from others. There just isn’t any downside to it.
Fools think it’s the way of cowards or low achievers. They think bravado and insistence is the path to authority. They incorrectly see leadership as authority, but they’re not the same. People make up their own minds on who they’ll follow. Or who will influence them. Somebody imposes a boss on us. It doesn’t make them leader. Leadership’s power is first over one’s own pride and ego, and next, over one’s ability to influence others because they know their best interest is the primary consideration.
Be well. Do good. Grow great!