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We need more humble leaders. Here’s how to get them

Humility is a top requirement for the emerging workforce. Here’s how both individuals and organizations can tap its potential.

We need more humble leaders. Here’s how to get them
[Photo: Wesley Eland/Unsplash]

What makes the ideal leader?

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Hollywood tells us we want a superhero in a business suit, an individual of charisma and action.

But thoughtful research tells us the truth is more nuanced. The best leaders, according to Good to Great author Jim Collins, display a combination of humility and fierce resolve. They are modest, self-effacing, understated, and fanatically driven by results. And more recent research gives us an even better understanding of humility. It is the integration of self-awareness, teachability, and an appreciation of the capabilities of others. These are traits that allow for inclusive teams and continuous learning that are foundational for creating innovative cultures.

This is going to be more important in the coming years, as it’s a top requirement for the emerging workforce. In our research on organizational culture, we found that millennials listed humility as one of the top three most important traits in a leader, along with strategy and ethics. Globally, 48% say they look for humility in their leadership, while in the U.S., more than half (54%) say this.

Yet even with all this information about the nature of humble leaders, we still find it challenging to nurture and celebrate them. We fall back on our “romance with leadership” says Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. This perpetuates the concept of the celebrity CEO, which in turn, influences the succession planning process.

The quest for finding humility in a leader is both an internal and external issue. Companies often fail to appreciate the trait in their internal pipeline, and at the same time, aren’t looking for it when recruiting from the outside. To support the emergence of humble leaders, companies must take a broad look at their internal and external search processes, examining their biases and approach to talent management.

Check your biases

We often misinterpret humility for a lack of confidence or ambition, but that is not the case. Humble leaders simply express these traits of confidence and ambition in different ways. For example, when it comes to motivation, humble individuals are ambitious for the company, not for themselves. Their life pursuits revolve around the greater whole versus personal gain. We are often biased to think this means the individual is not a “go-getter” and lacks drive. But in fact, the drive is present and strong, although directed differently.

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Self-esteem is another area where bias can cloud judgment. Humility at its core is an increased valuation of others rather than a devaluation of self. Humble people don’t often need to seek affirmation or self-promote. This can come across as a lack of confidence to those used to looking for the rock star leader. But that’s not necessarily true. It’s simply how we have conditioned ourselves to spot what we believe are relevant leadership traits, and what we are attracted to on first impressions.

Humble individuals often do not see themselves as great leaders that can lead to misconceptions about their abilities and cause them to slip by unnoticed. In reality, this is not an issue of capability, but one of identity, which is something that leaders can develop.

Change the way talent is managed

New tools and tactics can combat the cultural bias toward flashy leadership and encourage humility instead. A key step is realizing that the tools themselves may be part of the problem.

If an organization has traditionally valued charisma and self-promotion, it can be challenging to establish that humility is a valued trait. One company found that one of its key interviewing techniques–rapid-fire questioning for a brief, intense period of time by a panel–worked to highlight people who are socially confident and resilient but does nothing to identify humility.

Charisma can cloud the process, giving rise to leaders who present as stars but are ultimately hampered by ego issues. Egon Zehnder Potential Model gives companies a framework to evaluate candidates while not over-emphasizing charisma and ambition.

Four traits to focus on to find more humble leaders

  • Curiosity. They are driven to proactively seek understanding and new learning. This includes learning through feedback.
  • Insight. They process information from many sources and use it to shape insights that make sense of ambiguity and break the status quo.
  • Engagement. They engage the hearts and minds of others to deliver shared objectives and mutual benefits. This is someone who gains energy from authentically connecting with others and understanding them on a deep level.
  • Determination. They enjoy a challenge but don’t let their strength of purpose turn into stubbornness. This person will take on risks with ingenuity and tenacity, but can stay nimble and change direction when needed.

Our research shows that in order to detect humility, we must take a closer look at aspects of three of these traits.

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  • Curiosity is linked to teachability and a desire to see one’s self accurately.
  • Engagement is linked to self-awareness and appreciation for others’ capabilities.
  • Determination is the “fierce resolve” described by Collins.

Assessments that draw from objective data lets companies be better able to understand individual capability, potential, motivation, and aspirations. This process can help companies shed assumptions and focus more tightly on the important leadership traits.

The search for humble leadership is challenging. But for those who pursue it, the rewards are clear.

We worked with one global company with a strong history of promoting based on tenure and very traditional professional networks. The chief human resources officer knew that things had to change to evolve the company’s approach to talent, and had the opportunity with an upcoming critical appointment. The head of one of the divisions was promoted to become CEO, and they needed someone to fill his vacated role.

The CHRO asked an outside consultant to conduct an assessment of the three contenders to get a more objective perspective because leadership and the board felt there was a clear front-runner. He was already leading the biggest division and had a confident, charismatic personality. The second contender was also well regarded, known for being analytical and reliable. The third contender was the least known of the three and the least obvious choice. He was introverted and not as flashy as the others.

Our assessment revealed that the least obvious contender turned out to be the best leader of the three. He was far more effective in developing people and engaging the team’s commitment. He wasn’t gunning for the job, but he wasn’t fighting it, either–a product of his low ego style.

The assumed lead candidate, it turned out, took a more top-down approach and didn’t listen as well, which led to challenges collaborating with and developing his people.

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The board decided to choose the less obvious candidate, and he successfully grew the division.

The positive impact of humble leaders has a broad reach. Collins found that with all abilities being equal, teams of humble leaders tend to contribute more, perform better, and demonstrate greater commitment to the company. These results lay the foundation for a culture of innovation and transformation across the organization.

How to develop yourself as a humble leader

Individuals who are naturally humble can take steps to develop their identity and stand out in ways that are genuine to them.

  • Motivate yourself by focusing on how you are driving outstanding results instead of your own success, and promote what you are doing as a way for your team to be recognized.
  • Think about what values define you as a leader such as courage, compassion, and integrity in order to develop a positive leadership identity that transcends your own personal success and helps you communicate your values as a leader.
  • Be as transparent as possible with leadership about your aspiration as a way to drive your development and avoid becoming viewed as a good soldier.
  • Developing humility requires increased self-awareness and motivation to change your mind-set and behavior.
  • Seek consistent feedback and use a coach to enable desired behavior change.
  • Deepen your motivation by connecting it to a bigger purpose and, therefore, the opportunity to make a bigger impact.

Organizations and senior leadership within them must emphasize humility as a desired trait. That means practicing it, modeling it, rewarding it, and evaluating it when considering individuals for promotion.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: “A great man is always willing to be little.” With a holistic outlook on evaluating potential, we can ensure great people rise to the top.

Karl Alleman is the U.S. managing partner and Julie Kalt is the U.S. assessment and development practice specialist at Egon Zehnder.

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