A signature trait of the most likable leaders — a trait that leads to uncommon loyalty in employees as well as business results — is one that’s extremely hard to pull off: humility.
But fair warning: If you’re in charge of people, and you think you’ve arrived at the top of the humility mountain, I question your honesty. Here’s what I mean.
Cheryl Bachelder, former CEO at Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen and author of Dare to Serve, created a high performing culture during her tenure that included the daily practice and valuing of humility. But she was quick to admit, “We value it because if we said we were humble, we’d be lying on a daily basis.”
Calling yourself “humble” is something you cannot do, because the very admission of it exposes you as potentially cocky.
Yet for leaders courageous enough to take the journey toward humility, the long-term benefits are plainly evident in the way followers respond.
The Essence of a Humble Leader
When prolific consultant, author, and lecturer Jim Collins wrote about top leaders in his seminal book Good to Great, he said that they have mastered the paradoxical balance of personal humility and fierce resolve. Collins determined from his extensive research that these respected leaders direct their ego away from themselves to the larger goal of leading their company to greatness.
In essence, humble leaders achieve greatness without arrogance. They shift from ego to humility which can drastically alter the outcome to their advantage.
Here are three ways they exercise their influence through humility.
1. Humble leaders don’t take the credit.
Leaders who deflect the limelight away from them and allow their followers to be in the limelight gain respect at an alarming rate. There is something very liberating for employees when they receive credit.
Bachelder and her team once concluded that too many leaders hunger for the spotlight, too many leaders want to stay in the spotlight, and too many leaders forget to shine the spotlight on others.
She said, “What if we turned the spotlight to the people we serve instead of keeping it to ourselves? And what would that look like?”
Well, they did. They transformed Popeyes into a servant leadership culture and the results were incredible during her tenure as CEO. From 2008 through 2015, Popeyes posted average global sales growth of 8.4 percent, and average earnings per share growth of 14.1 percent.
2. Humble leaders never stop learning.
Humble leaders are a different breed. They gladly accept the role of learners because they know it will make them better. They know that each person has something important to teach them.
They ask questions, and are sincerely interested in the answers. They never assume they know more than the very people they lead. This is even more important for new managers with long-tenured employees or knowledge workers who hold expertise in a specific area.
In turn, humble leaders will leverage the skills and education of these people, and enable them to contribute great ideas that lead to great customer experience.
3. Humble leaders involve others.
You’ll find humble leaders in open spaces sharing plans for the future, communicating important things to their people, and fostering a transparent culture. The last thing you’ll see a humble leader do is hide behind closed doors or delegate important things to someone else.
Lastly, humble leaders create an environment in which risks are taken, allowing those around them to feel safe to exercise their creativity, communicate their ideas openly, and provide input to major decisions. Because there’s trust there, not fear. It communicates to employees a sense of “Hey, we’re all in this together.”
By Marcel Schwantes
Principal and founder, Leadership From the Core@MarcelSchwantes