When we think of great leaders, humility may not always be the first word we’d use to describe them. Many bigger-than-life executives such as Steve Jobs or Bill Gates would likely be described first as visionary, bold, or charismatic. Yet, if we look more closely, there are also leaders (such as, say, Richard Branson) who are often described as humble and laid-back.
A survey of computer product firms published in the Journal of Management found that humble leaders resulted in higher-performing teams, better collaboration, and flexibility. Other research has found that humble leaders are better listeners, more flexible, and inspire greater teamwork.
Millennials, who make up over a third of the U.S. labor force, are partially responsible for changing leadership trends. Research shows that they generally tend to adopt a “servant” type of leadership: humble, collaborative, and driven by the well-being of the staff and the organization’s service of the greater good. And as millennials are more inclined to leave jobs when they’re not feeling fulfilled, many organizations are paying attention to the type of leadership these workers thrive under, as well.
Here are seven reasons that humble leaders are increasingly sought after: THEY DON’T ABUSE THEIR AUTHORITY We have all heard horror stories of power-hungry, status-seeking leaders and the damage they have done to those under them—and ultimately to the organization. Genuinely humble leaders see themselves more as coaches and mentors, always looking for ways to encourage others and bring out the best in them. Instead of keeping authority and control, they look for ways to delegate and give others the opportunity to take on and expand their leadership potential.
THEY CONSTANTLY LOOK TO PROMOTE OTHERS Humble leaders understand the need for others to succeed and are constantly looking for ways to develop and expand the leadership opportunities of those that work for them. They promote based on skill, talent, hard work, and talent. Unlike self-serving leaders, they aren’t likely to be impressed by those who look to get ahead simply by ingratiating themselves to those in positions of authority.
Without big egos that need to be stroked, they are less likely to be taken in by flattery and insincere attempts to get on their good side. Their humility allows them to focus on the big picture and see how the overall success of the organization will be improved by developing authentic, deserving leaders. “Leaders who champion others wind up with teams who exhibit lower absenteeism, lower attrition, and increased team confidence, as well as higher team performance,” says Dan Pontefract, author of the new book Lead. Care. Win.
THEY MODEL AND SUPPORT COLLABORATION Heightened competition among team members results in mistrust, with time and energy spent vying for position, rather than focusing on the work of the team. Rather than having people competing with one another, humble leaders encourage and reward collaboration. This increases teamwork capabilities and results in increased trust among team members. When collaboration becomes the norm, team members feel more relaxed and are able to bring their full abilities and skills to the workplace.
THEY MODEL INTEGRITY AND TRUST Humble leaders do not make promises that they do not keep or try to build up their reputations by shows of aggrandizement and pretense. With them, what you see is what you get. Instead of flashy words and talk, they back up what they say with action. Team- and community-oriented, they are always looking for ways to help and don’t find any level of work in their organization to be beneath them. To learn more about the organization, they might be found pitching in to help in all situations that may require immediate attention. This kind of engagement earns them respect and trust from those that work under them.
THEY’RE SUPPORTIVE OF THEIR STAFF Humble leaders look for opportunities to catch their staff doing something well and let them know. They will acknowledge when something went wrong, but focus on solutions and learning opportunities, rather than spreading blame or punishment.
But being humble does not mean they’re pushovers. They are able to set firm boundaries and are open about what they look for in others. Those that work for a humble leader will know what is expected of them and not have to worry about being criticized, called out, or humiliated in front of their coworkers. They know that even if they have made a mistake, they will be listened to, understood, and given the opportunity to make changes.
THEY’RE ABLE TO ADMIT THEIR MISTAKES AND SHORTCOMINGS Humble leaders don’t need to feel they’re the smartest person in the room. They are secure enough in themselves that they do not feel threatened when others know more than they do. When they make mistakes, they openly admit them, rather than trying to hide or cover them up. If someone comes up with a better idea, they don’t feel it is beneath them to accept it.
They don’t see vulnerability as a weakness, but rather see it as a way of giving their reports the permission to be vulnerable as well. This creates a less stressed, open, and emotionally healthy workplace for everyone, allowing everyone to be themselves and focus on their work. “Admitting to a mistake and then saying sorry demonstrates a willingness to make a wrong known swiftly, and to take accountability for it,” says Pontefract. “Those two acts not only portray vulnerability but [provide] a wonderful example of honest leadership. After all, leaders are humans too.”
THEY’RE FIRST TO TAKE RESPONSIBILITY AND LAST TO TAKE CREDIT Humble leaders demonstrate that the buck stops with them and take responsibility when things don’t work out. On the other hand, they will graciously give credit to others when things go well. They have a team-first mindset, always looking for ways to support and get the most from their teams. When their teams do well, they seldom take credit themselves, realizing the importance of praise, appreciation, and acknowledgment to motivate their people to give their best.
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