Let Humility Steer Your Leader(ship)

cruise ship

As I sit looking out at the gorgeous blue waters of the Caribbean, I’m listening to the captain of our cruise ship responding to questions from passengers. This question-and-answer session typically occurs on the second-to-last day of the cruise, while we head north to our final destination in the Bahamas. Guests are encouraged to ask questions of the captain – from the mundane (how many coffee cups are recycled) to the more futuristic (how soon will the fleet be fully electric powered).

One question caught my attention: What are the attributes you seek in selecting your top officers for the ship? While this captain, working within a large cruise line, doesn’t have the final say on who sails with him, he does have influence on the composition of his team.

While I expected mention of specific nautical knowledge/skills or team leadership as his initial go-to response, he spoke passionately about the need for humility within his leaders. Without it, he reflected, other key traits and skills can never be fully realized.

I sat up right away as this observation matches my experience, over many years, reviewing leadership performance across a variety of companies and organizations. While it’s rarely mentioned directly, staff, board members, investors, shareholders and regulators frequently make reference to specific behaviours that demonstrate humility.

humble leader in actionThe qualities many of us associate with great leaders – vision, courage, charisma – don’t seem, at first, to align with the idea of a leader who demonstrates humility. However, research shows that leaders who consistently demonstrate humility listen better, inspire more effective teamwork and realize greater organizational performance than leaders who don’t score high on this attribute.

In my experience, true leadership humility is focused on service to others – be it team members, clients, stakeholders or the broader community. Or in this case, the crew and passengers traveling to exotic destinations during their cruise. Humility sets the stage for demonstration of other key leadership attributes (being visionary, inspirational, influential, strategic, etc.).

So, how do you move to greater humility, and ultimately, service to others? Here are some suggestions to strengthen your leadership humility:

1.) Seek out feedback – both the favourable and the challenging

Humble leaders view feedback as critical not only to their own success but as a ‘gift’ from others to strengthen their performance. Actively solicit actionable feedback on what’s working well and what needs to be improved in terms of your own leadership style and track record.

2.) Admit to your mistakes and take ownership for resolution

Leaders who demonstrate humility are quick to acknowledge their mistakes and own the resolution process. The next time things don’t turn out the way you expected, or you’ve done something that’s gone sideways, be quick to accept your shortcomings and seek to remedy the situation, take a different path or resolution.

3.) Actively recognize and give credit to others

When progress is made, tasks or goals achieved or success realized, humble leaders are quick to recognize those milestones and provide both personal and public acknowledgement of others’ accomplishments.

4.) Demonstrate meaningful care for others

Providing the right context and ingredients for others to succeed is foundational to leadership humility. This might include tangibles such as appropriate training, up-to-date tools and technology and competitive compensation. It also includes more intangible attributes, such as a supportive, safe and respectful workplace; coaching and mentoring opportunities; and regular one-on-one dialogue between you and your team members.

5.) Share the limelight

Leaders quite often get opportunities to enhance their profile and reputation through interactions with key clients, well-connected board members, influential shareholders and high-profile members of their industry or community. Leaders who demonstrate humility provide opportunities for others in their team or organization to take the limelight and demonstrate their capabilities.

orchestra conductor

6.) Be the conductor – not the virtuoso

Humility enables leaders to step aside so that those best equipped to do the work are offered every opportunity to do so. View yourself as a conductor whose job is to facilitate the alignment of your people’s aspirations, motivations and skills towards your team’s mandate and organization’s vision.

As a leader, demonstrating humility is crucial to inspiring the best in others. Be diligent in adopting this mindset and intentional in your actions in service to others.

If you want to get insightful, in-depth and actionable feedback regarding how you’re showing up as a leader, contact me at scott@scottborland.ca or 250-882-8830 for a chat.

About The Author

Scott Borland, Founder & President of CYGNUS Management Consultants Inc, , is a recognized expert in helping executives host strategic conversations and obtain high impact feedback. He brings insightful perspective and proven strategies to strengthen the alignment between strategy and leadership behaviour. Scott has presented frequently at regional/national conferences and is a regular contributor to online journals/blogs. Follow Scott on Twitter or add him as a connection on LinkedIn.

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