What Makes a Great Leader, in Our Humble Opinion

By Candace Coleman, CultureWise Content Manager

Not too long ago, if you asked people to describe a strong business leader, their first thought might have been a demanding boss with a stringent, top-down management style. Previously a fixture in the work world, such overlords used stress, projected on everyone around them, as their primary motivation tool. Things got done under their command, but employees were often miserable.

In recent decades, people realized the authoritarian business model was never as effective as once believed. It became increasingly clear that the old-school leadership style disincentivizes workers—deflating productivity, innovation, and morale.  

In response, companies started to become more people-oriented and shied away from the image of an autocracy. CEOs tried to be more relatable, and many began to offer appealing perks, like ping pong tables and gym memberships, to keep staff motivated. They acted more like their employees’ peers than their strong-arm predecessors and willingly stepped back to delegate rather than commandeer.  

On some level, this style of leadership worked, but the pendulum swung too far for many organizations. Modern leaders who adopted a more laissez-faire approach learned the hard way that being too hands-off doesn’t pay off. And simply not piling stress on employees doesn’t make individuals or the company successful.

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The problem with executives who act like dictators or friends is that neither model inspires or brings out the best in their people. For a company to consistently succeed at a high level, the person in charge must be someone that others want to follow.

A great leader neither rules with an iron fist nor comfortably sits on the sidelines. Instead, they set a stellar example, are simultaneously visionary and practical, and create a strong, inclusive corporate culture in which individuals and the company excel. Such leaders may have distinctive personalities, but they don’t anchor their organizations to their egos.

In fact, they tend to possess a quality that authoritarians find cringe-worthy: humility.

Humility = Strength

Being humble and being a strong leader may sound counterintuitive, but humility doesn’t indicate an absence of grit. Humble leaders exude quiet confidence. Author and leadership expert Jim Collins noted this quality in his seminal book, Good to Great. In it, he writes about eleven CEOs who transformed their companies into incredible success stories. 

“These good-to-great leaders never wanted to become larger-than-life heroes. They were seemingly ordinary people quietly producing extraordinary results.”

Collins points out that humility alone doesn’t make great leaders. High achievers must also possess “stoic determination.” But unlike bombastic autocrats, unpretentious leaders constructively channel their resolve throughout their organization. Their calm confidence resonates with and motivates staff.

5 Things Humble Leaders Do Well

The characteristics of a humble leader are the girders of a highly effective business operation. Instead of looking at what they can hang their hat on, they’re vested in bringing out the best in themselves, their team members, and the whole organization.

Humble leaders infuse their company’s culture with positive and supportive patterns of behavior. These are some of their most valuable attributes:

  1. They understand the importance of listening
  2. They create a blame-free environment
  3. They provide meaningful acknowledgment
  4. They value relationships and teamwork
  5. They constantly learn and improve
Listening

When humble leaders listen, they don’t merely give others a chance to speak. Instead, they are listening to understand what is being said. CultureWise founder and CEO David Friedman calls this generous listening, and he notes that people who do this:

  • Give their full attention to the speaker
  • Are curious and willing to have their opinions changed
  • Set aside preconceived conclusions and judgments
  • Don’t look for an opening for a rebuttal

Humble leaders are eager to listen to diverse perspectives and encourage their employees to speak up. This works to everyone’s advantage. Staff members feel valued, respected, and included when their boss listens to them. And the leader’s perspective is broadened, resulting in better strategies and outcomes.

Solution-Focus

Blame is one of the most counterproductive traits of an authoritarian leader. Executives who lack humility are quick to point fingers, which creates a toxic atmosphere. Business psychology professor and author Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic sums this condition up in Forbes:

“When leaders lack humility, they are prone to making avoidable mistakes, blaming others for their poor decisions, and overestimating their own talents to the point of losing touch with reality, preferring instead to surround themselves with Yes Men.”

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Once a leader establishes the blame model, the rest of the staff usually follows suit. As a result, problems aren’t efficiently solved, resentments fester, and conflicts erupt.

People make mistakes. What sets humble leaders apart and makes them more successful is the way they handle them. When they err, they admit it and model accountability. And regardless of who’s at fault, they coach their team to focus on solutions instead of blame.  

As David Friedman points out in his book, Fundamentally Different, when mistakes happen, there should only be three things to care about:

  1. What’s the best way to solve the problem?
  2. What did we learn from the situation?
  3. How will we reflect that learning in new processes that diminish the likelihood of that mistake happening again?

Mistakes are inevitable, but humble leaders realize they’re valuable learning experiences that can make the team stronger. 

Acknowledgment

Leaders who fail to acknowledge their employees’ achievements, or worse, take credit for them, cause as much damage as casting blame. But humble leaders possess the confidence and generosity to give credit where credit is due. They understand that doing so builds up employees’ self-worth and encourages them to continue to perform at a high level.

Legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant used to tell his players:

“If anything goes bad, I did it. If anything goes semi-good, then we did it. If anything goes really good, then you did it.”

Bryant led the Crimson Tide to six national championships, and at retirement held the record for most wins as head coach in collegiate football history. The same philosophy that Bryant followed for his teams also unifies and strengthens companies. Humble leaders are quick to praise individual and group wins and allow others to shine. And when employees triumph, the organization can become formidable.

Relationships

Humble leaders don’t live in ivory towers. They know that forming relationships and a sense of community with their team members is vital to their company’s success.

World-renowned organizational culture experts and authors Edgar and Peter Schein map out the benefits of relationship-building in their book, Humble Leadership: The Power of Relationships, Openness, and Trust.

They posit that employee engagement, empowerment, organizational agility, and innovation can flourish when the fundamental relationship between leaders and followers becomes more personalized and cooperative.

But impersonal, transactional leader-staff relationships rooted in static hierarchies set the stage for ongoing distrust, high turnover, and problems with productivity and quality.

Humble leaders establish stronger communication and promote collaborative problem-solving by strengthening connections with and among team members. In a rapidly changing work world, these are essential tools for organizations to survive and grow.

Lifelong Learners

Many authoritarian executives would rather fail than admit they don’t have all the answers. Humble leaders readily acknowledge that they’re constantly learning and striving to improve themselves. Most of them avidly seek outside resources to continuously build their knowledge and awareness. Perhaps more importantly, these leaders make it clear that they’re eager to learn from their staff.

They understand that the people who work for them are often more in tune with specific areas of the organization. Leaders willing to absorb their staff’s valuable insight can create more thoughtful and comprehensive plans for the organization.

Michael Wade, Director of the Global Center for Digital Business Transformation at IMD, calls this “humility in learning.” He studied over 1,000 executives and concluded that successful leaders actively solicit new ideas, gather information broadly, and don’t allow their perceived wisdom or prior belief to constrain their thinking.

In an article detailing his findings, Wade cites top executives who have embraced this concept, including Lazlo Bock, former SVP of People Operations at Google. Bock stresses the need for leaders to possess what he calls intellectual humility; “Without humility, you are unable to learn.”

Wade also shares Microsoft’s Satya Nadella’s succinct personal mantra: “Learn it all, don’t know it all.” 

This receptivity to learning and growth makes humble leaders more adaptive and agile. They are better equipped to navigate challenges and take advantage of opportunities because they’re willing to openly glean as much knowledge as possible.

Humble Leadership and Company Culture

Employees follow the example set by their boss. Humble leaders who prioritize careful listening, focus on solutions, acknowledge people’s achievements, build relationships, and are lifelong learners will forge a team of similar people. This behavior pattern establishes the kind of healthy, productive organizational culture that companies must have to succeed. As Edgar Schein says:

“Humble leaders concern themselves with creating the culture that makes purposeful forward movement sustainable as the world of work evolves.”

The challenge for such leaders is to maintain their corporate culture as their business grows or transitions to include more remote workers. Employees spread among multiple locations or throughout a large facility may rarely see the head of the company.

What happens when the boss can no longer physically lead by example?

David Friedman’s passion for developing and sustaining outstanding company culture inspired him to write two books on the topic: Fundamentally Different and Culture by Design. Based on his experience as a CEO, Friedman explains how to foster and continuously reinforce behaviors like those manifested in humble leaders in a workforce.

He took his concept even further when he developed CultureWise. This automated system based on the methods outlined in his books has helped business leaders across North America strengthen and preserve their company culture. Through CultureWise, leaders can permanently instill the qualities they value in their organizations.

Learn more by reading a free, two-chapter download of Culture by Design and exploring the CultureWise website. And stay informed with a complimentary subscription to Culture Matters, the CultureWise blog.

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