Want to demonstrate that you have what it takes to be an effective leader and have people follow your direction?
That lesson echoed with me as I read a David Brooks column in the New York Times in which he describes listening to an archival recording of “Command Performance,” a radio variety show originally broadcast on V-J Day. Celebrities abounded but according to Brooks, “the most striking feature of the show was its tone of self-effacement and humility.” Victory was welcome but marked with dignity.
Leaders who want to inspire followership, and I use the word “inspire” deliberately, need to demonstrate not simply their accomplishments but their character. Take pride in what you have done, but use it as a platform to bring people together to do greater things, e.g. increase sales, improve quality, or save the planet. Use your leadership for something other than self-aggrandizement.
A sense of humility is essential to leadership because it authenticates a person’s humanity. We humans are frail creatures; we have our faults. Recognizing what we do well, as well as what we do not do so well, is vital to self-awareness and paramount to humility. Here are some ways to demonstrate humility in the workplace.
Temper authority. Power comes with rank but you don’t have to pull it to make it work for you. You can encourage others to make decisions by delegating authority and responsibility. Encourage your people to write their own performance objectives and set team goals. Allow them to make decisions. Your authority comes in the form of imposing order and discipline.
Look to promote others. Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman note in their seminal text, First, Break All the Rules, that a characteristic of successful managers is their ability to promote others, sometimes to positions higher than their own. Such managers are talent groomers, they are ones upon whose leadership success of the enterprise rests.
Acknowledge what others do. Few have said it better than legendary Alabama coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant. “If anything goes bad, I did it. If anything goes semi-good, we did it. If anything goes really good, then you did it. That’s all it takes to get people to win football games for you.” Practice that attitude always, especially when things are not going well, and your team will rally together because they want you to succeed. In short, humility breeds humility.
Can you be too humble in the workplace? Yes. If you fail to put yourself, or more importantly your ideas, forward, you will be overlooked. Chances for promotion will evaporate, but worse you will not give anyone a reason to believe in you. All of us need not lead others, but those who do seek to influence, to change, to guide, and to lead their organizations, need to find ways to get noticed. Again humility comes to the rescue. That is, if you celebrate team first, self second, people will notice what you and your team have achieved.
And once more, let me return to Brook’s column in which he cites a passage from Ernie Pyle who had been killed in action in the Pacific months before in anticipation of victory. “We won this war because our men are brave and because of many things — because of Russia, England and China and the passage of time and the gift of nature’s material. We did not win it because destiny created us better than all other peoples.”
In today’s corporate speak we might say we had a diverse team with ample resources and we are thankful for the opportunity to compete. But I prefer Pyle’s closing admonishment. “I hope that we are more grateful than we are proud.”
First posted on HBR.org 9/15/2009