Leadership Effectiveness: The Power of Humility

I’ve been reflecting on my 25 years of corporate sales, consulting and leadership experience lately.  In particular I’ve been thinking about a few of the wonderful leaders I’ve enjoyed working with and how much I learned, felt highly engaged, was inspired and very productive while working with them.  I’ve also had several experiences that were not quite enjoyable. In one particular case, I began to actually believe I was incompetent. I became disengaged, and dismal.  Not my typical self at all. The contrast between the two experiences was quite remarkable.

What did those leaders do that helped to create a more positive experience for me?  They did what might be obvious and simple: They showed up fully present. They listened with an open mind. They said thanks. They created community. They pushed decision making down. They set clear goals and provided useful feedback. They had an inspiring vision and a solid supporting strategy. Turnover was minimal. Word of mouth throughout the organization was positive. Trust amongst team leaders was robust. Team members cared about each other. Ideas flowed freely. Decisions were made quickly and effectively.

What did the other leaders do that was less effective? They drew too much attention to themselves.  They didn’t listen to opposing points of view with real curiosity. They kept decision making in the hands of a very few at the top. They blamed others when faced with defeat. They created an atmosphere where speaking the truth was stifled with fear of retaliation.  They displayed behaviors of arrogance and “it’s all about me.”  At it’s very worst I have seen poor leadership manifest as arrogance and narcissism and those behaviors create particular insidious problems: cultures of fear, higher turnover, less productivity, declining revenues, in-authenticity, hypocrisy, gossip and isolation.

Arrogant and narcissistic behaviors are known to create chaos around them.  These attitudes are rooted in fear and that fear begins to manifest throughout the organization. People begin to feel unsafe. They’re not sure what will happen next or who will be on the chopping block tomorrow. They watch what happens to those that disagree with the prevailing belief system of the CEO or senior leader and they quickly learn that not speaking up is the safer way to go.  Good ideas go unspoken. Innovation and creativity get stifled. What once was an exciting and promising place to work becomes drudgery and just putting in the time. People start looking for other jobs, doing the minimum amount of work in order to survive. There’s gossip and misery sharing behind closed doors. Superficially things might look good, but they are truly not.

Note: For anyone wishing to know more about how to deal with narcissistic leaders there are several links to articles at the end of this piece.

The Power of Humility

While there are many differences between effective and ineffective leadership behavior the mindset underneath those behaviors is really the driver. In my experience there is one specific mindset that helps create strong leadership: a curious mindset, a spirit of humility. Jim Collins wrote about this years ago in his classic book, “Good to Great.” According to him, great leaders display humility coupled with ego drive. Amy Cuddy in her book “Presence” writes about the importance of warmth and competence. Both are necessary she argues to be successful but without warmth no one cares how competent someone is. And warmth is not generated from a mindset of arrogance or narcissism. Warmth comes from the heart, from humility. Arrogance, fear and narcissism go together. Humility, curiosity, warmth and love all go together.  Arrogance and humility can’t exist in the same space. They’re like dark and light, fear and love.

Humility comes from the Latin word “humilitas” and means low or from the earth. Humility enables a leader to live with a sense of curiosity and openness that fuels a deep commitment to learning and a thirst to be present and aware. Humility embraces the attitude “The way that I see the world is simply the way that I see it.” It respects that others may see the world very differently. Humility is not synonymous with weakness but is rooted in intrinsic self-worth and strength. The mindset of humility has opinions and expresses them fully. However, instead of presenting them as facts, or the only way reality can be seen, the humility mindset fully owns its opinions and expresses them. “My perspective on the situation is this…What do you think?” This approach is confident and direct and invites dialogue and learning.

Making the Shift

We are conditioned by many factors such as: our family of origin, our life experiences, the country we grew up in, our friends, religious upbringing, ethnicity and our education. We develop filters, biases, habits, thought patterns, values, standards and ways of being. We are driven much of the time by that which we are not fully aware of. Our habits and unconscious patterns often rule the roost. It takes rigorous daily work to keep the muscle of humility strong. We have to work at self-awareness.  We don’t get it by just reading a book, taking a personality assessment or just going to a weekly yoga class.

Here are 7 things I have learned that have helped me cultivate a stronger mindset of humility:

  1. Clearly communicate the difference between my opinions and the observable facts, by using phrases such as: “In my view” or “The way that I see this…”
  2. Exposing my views (even if incomplete) and being open to challenges from others: “I am thinking out loud here…” or “I haven’t figured this out completely yet…”
  3. Listening to others’ thoughts and opinions truly trying to understand why they think, act or feel like they do. “I am curious to understand why…” or “Why do you say this?”
  4. Practice using the principle that there are three goals for every conversation:
    •  Inquire into the other person’s story
    • Speak my own truth
    • Mutually resolve any differences
  5. Remember that every story is incomplete from my perspective alone. Ask: “What don’t I know?” or “What might I be missing?
  6. Develop a consistent meditation practice. Among the many positive benefits this in particular helped me observe and see more clearly the fabrications, judgements, assumptions and projections of the ego/racing mind and choose a more equanimous response to a challenging situation.
  7. And last, Don’t get furious, get Curious!

Summing it Up

At the end of each day don’t we want to be proud about how we have behaved? If so, then it’s entirely up to us to make smart choices regarding our behavior. Walking around thinking we know how everything ought to be and that our world view is the only possible way to see things will not serve us well. Being curious and willing to see a different point of view will indeed serve us well.

Imagine for a moment if the arrogant/narcissistic leader had the awareness to ask themselves what they don’t know about a situation, and/or what they could they learn by really listening to those around them. Things would be quite different.

What we need in this world, in our politics and in our corporate leadership is more love, kindness and humility. That will create more humane workplaces that are healthier for people to work in, where they can really learn, contribute, grow and succeed. It is entirely possible.








About Don Johnson

Don Johnson, the Founder and President of the Integria Group, LLC, has over 25 years of experience in business management, leadership, sales and consulting in the performance improvement industry. He founded the Integria Group after being a Principal Consultant with Axialent. He has worked extensively with executives at Google, YouTube, Yahoo! AXA USA, Crowe Horwath, The Jamaican Ministry of Defense, The United States Federal Court System and Allinial Global helping them develop their leadership skills and their business effectiveness. Don was formerly the US Director of Sales for Insights for 5 years helping lead the business to record growth and also worked at Achieve Global, a leading international training and consulting firm, holding many positions, including Regional Director and later Regional Vice President. For five years, he managed a 30-person, $15 million business unit, leading his organization through the post-merger integration of three consulting companies. After completing his undergraduate degree from Ohio Wesleyan University in English Literature, Don started his career at Élan Vital, an international non-profit organization that promotes the work of Prem Rawat. A member of the Élan Vital management team from a young age, Don was appointed President of the corporation in 1980 and held the position for four years. He is a competitive tennis player, plays guitar and writes and records music. He lives in Tayport, Scotland, a small village on the North Sea.
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