27 September 2023

Humble pie: How even the crustiest leaders need to show humility

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David Clarke* says it is not a good idea to pretend to your team that you have all the answers.

When was the last time you admitted a mistake to your team or they felt comfortable giving you honest feedback about how you’re leading?

Can’t recall?

Doing these things when you’re the boss requires a strong dose of humility, but too few leaders display it.

I was a hot head in my younger years. I’ve thrown a stapler or two at walls.

It stemmed from frustration that my vision wasn’t being executed.

I had my wake-up moment a few years ago.

I launched a tirade toward someone in my group and, at the pinnacle of my fit, a fellow partner stopped the meeting, pulled me out and humbled me.

I apologised in front of the group and learned a valuable lesson I’ve tried to live every day since.

Humility helps us learn and grow as people.

Unfortunately, it’s not a common trait in our ego-driven business culture.

We often want to be seen as heroic leaders, bold, confident, all-knowing.

When your title calls for decisiveness, delegating and advice-giving, being humble seems counterintuitive.

Humility requires listening. It demands ruthless self-reflection.

It means respecting and accepting feedback from others at any level.

I learned this from a leader I used to watch closely in meetings.

He would quietly listen for the first 90 per cent of a meeting, and in the last 10 per cent he would reflect on what he gained from it, eloquently provide some direction and then immediately ask for feedback.

Many executives mistake humility for weakness and try to own the air around them.

In giving into this fallacy, leaders may criticise subordinates instead of coaching them and dismiss collective ideas in favour of their own agenda.

Humble leaders also do more than listen, reflect and respect.

They model how to be effectively human rather than superhuman and legitimise ‘becoming; rather than ‘pretending’.

Research suggests humble leaders foster learning-oriented teams and engage employees.

The opposites of humility: Self-grandeur, pride, even displays of narcissism, bring real consequences.

Distrust; ineffective management; higher turnover.

Client relationships and project success can suffer.

If you aren’t able to listen or take feedback, can you really understand client issues or quickly change course if needed?

Lacking humility is especially problematic now, with technological advancements moving at the speed of light and a crop of senior leaders who are unlikely to be digital natives.

Consider this: Ninety per cent of the world’s data was created in the past year alone.

That should humble us all.

New technology and methods of work mean that many leaders, unlikely to be digital natives, might not understand how to use data effectively.

Some might not even understand what their teams are talking about.

You probably have employees who know their way around things far better than you do.

Being brash and acting as if you’re all-knowing won’t cut it.

How will your workforce trust you if you’re not honest about your own shortcomings and knowledge gaps?

At PwC, for instance, our Chair and senior partner, Tim Ryan, challenged the entire leadership team to take a digital fitness assessment (DFA).

This would access where our skills, behaviour and mindsets stood when it came to being more digital in the way we work.

There were 23 questions and multiple choice answers.

Then he told us to share our initial scores openly with one another and with our employees.

It was humbling. It reaffirmed his believe in the servant leadership model and sent a message to the rest of the firm.

It was okay to not know everything because we all have room to improve — even the boss.

It’s more evidence that it’s time for executives and leaders to admit what they don’t know, surround themselves with people who have the answers, and learn along the way.

You don’t have to become the patron saint of humility to adjust your leadership style, but you do have to commit to it.

Adopt a learning mindset:

It’s less about what you already know, and more about what you can still learn.

Train yourself to stop relying too heavily on “what’s worked in the past”.

Remind yourself regularly that you don’t have all the answers and that exploring new ideas is the key to survival.

Listen first, talk later:

Humble leaders don’t just give advice, they take it too.

Actively make your team feel as if you are working for them, not just the other way around.

Ask your team for feedback about projects, your leadership style, daily pain points.

Then work toward improvements based on what you hear.

It might take time for your team to trust this new you, but keep at it.

Share the blame, and the credit:

Organisations win and lose as a team and humble leaders share accountability.

Next time you find yourself ready to shift blame when something goes wrong, pause.

Adopt a position of assessment, and be upfront about your own shortcomings or mistakes.

When there’s a big win to celebrate, shine the spotlight on the team.

Ask yourself: Could my leadership use more humility?

*David Clarke is Chief Experience Officer for PricewaterhouseCoopers. He can be followed on Twitter at @dlclarke.

This article first appeared at LinkedIn.

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