We often discuss the technical skills that great leaders need to be successful, and thus to hopefully encourage hard work and success amongst their teams. Skills such as data analysis, business acumen, and operations management are at the forefront for leadership success in every industry. However, many times leaders often assume they must be assertive and dominant in ways that can express their confidence in their abilities to lead their companies to success and this can actually deter employee engagement, creativity and collaboration.
When leaders use a humble, transparent and empathetic approach to guiding and developing teams they aren’t sacrificing their business strengths – they are adding to their skills repertoire in ways that may have immeasurable impact on their organizations and the people they depend on for company success.
So what does a humble leader do differently than others? For starters, they need to develop their ability to be self-aware and transparent about their strengths and weaknesses, and how those interplay with the strengths and weaknesses of those on their teams. A willingness to be vulnerable and admit when you don’t know something, ask the questions others are afraid to ask in case they appear “behind the curve,” or honestly share when someone else on your team is better prepared to handle or oversee a particular task or project all contributes to humble and servant leadership.
This type of transparency and vulnerability can contribute to stronger relationship building and levels of trust with those a leader oversees on a team or cross-functional stakeholder group. I’ve worked with so many leaders and individual contributors over the years who will never, ever admit a weakness, a lack of knowledge on a certain topic, and hold steadfast to a refusal to ask questions in group settings because they fear ever being seen as less than 100 percent confident. In their eyes, this sets them up as a powerful, competent and credible leader. The reality? No leader is infallible.
Employees and teams relate to those willing to show vulnerabilities to learn and grow; it is much harder, if not impossible, for many to instead find connection or common ground with those whose primary aim is to always present themselves as the smartest person in the room, without fault, and unflinchingly perfect.
The other critical piece of developing yourself as a humble leader is authenticity – if employees feel your leadership style is falsely empathetic, they will see through the façade and be even less trusting and engaged than before. If you are asking employees for their feedback, input into projects or process improvement, telling them to speak up and get engaged in decision making and creative collaboration, but when they do try to contribute you fail to genuinely take their input into consideration, they will know your attempts at humble leadership is for show and not to drive genuine, lasting change in the organizational culture.
Be honest with yourself – when was the last time you asked for feedback on your performance as a leader because you truly wanted to know where you could improve, not just to check the box on your performance review? When you received feedback, did you actually make a tangible plan to improve? Did you follow back up with the employees to see how you were progressing? Humble leadership also involves sharing the successes in addition to the accountability for times that could have gone better. When your team has a “win,” is your response self-focused or shared with the team? Do you use “I” and “me” more than “we” and “our”? Are you regularly acknowledging the inputs and efforts of others because you are genuinely appreciative?
The strongest leaders I’ve ever worked with are leaders that made me want to learn from them because I admired and respected them both professionally and personally. A large part of that stemmed from their treatment of the people around them, particularly during the most stressful times. Employees may be willing to work hard for a paycheck, for benefits, for rewards – but when you as a leader drive a strong work ethic and engagement from your team because they feel inspired by your leadership, they feel connected to your own hard work and efforts toward team and organizational success, and they see firsthand from your own example that it is OK to combine confidence with humility – this creates a completely different type of team cohesion.
This is where employee loyalty and true engagement is derived. Connection is so critical to team development and humble leaders use their strengths as well as their areas of opportunity to develop and connect with their teams by seeking to share the wins, express empathy, acknowledge weaknesses, speak up when they don’t know everything (because, who does?) and continuously seek out ways to bridge the unknown with a willingness to learn.
This demonstrated behavior leads by example, making those on your team more comfortable asking questions, seeking additional training or support and developing patience while recognizing we all learn differently and we all bring various strengths to our roles and teams. As a leader, if you are more concerned with portraying a picture of perfection that can be isolating and come across as unapproachable, than a willingness to connect through humility and transparency – you are missing out on the many valuable benefits that stem from humble leadership.