Why leaders are learning to be humble

12 Dec 2018

Why leaders are learning to be humble

In a world of dazzling complexity and bewildering change, the old models of leadership are less and less relevant, so what are the styles and qualities that will actually work?

So far in this ‘Leadership, Disrupted’ series, we have examined the external disruption coming from competition and customers, and how it’s forced the constant re-examination of strategy and business models.

Then, we looked at the disruptive challenges leaders are facing, because of a shift in the expectations of talent. Now we move onto the third theme: how senior leadership is changing the way ‘they lead’ in this faster-paced environment.

The pace of change means that individual leaders no longer have all the answers. It’s an illusion that any individual ever had all of the answers anyway, but that illusion has now been shattered forever. Those leaders who do understand this are talking about the need for humility in themselves and their peers.

This goes beyond a changed attitude towards what is expected. There is very much a pragmatic need. “There is so much more information now, that the human brain cannot take this in.” no leaders can know it all, let alone do it all.

Known unknowns

In our conversations with 70 MNC leaders in APAC, we heard how today’s conversation starts with the acknowledgement from many leaders that “There are many things we do not know.”

“As a leader, I now need to be curious about the wider business community as opposed to just the competition. This has shown me the shackled, restrained thinking of our industry.”

Several leaders from companies with long histories of global success described how, right from the top, there is a changed attitude to disruption and acknowledging ‘their’ gaps takes true humility.

“Our dialogue from the Chairman is ‘what does VUCA mean to us?’ We don’t know and that is a good start. We are much more conscious about opening our eyes and ears. It will come our way, but we want to be the leader, not the victim.” And from this class-leading technology company: “We have very strong alignment globally. I have a lot of trust in our CEO and him in me. He is the most humble boss I have ever had.”

With this though, comes a different kind of relationship between the CEOs and their teams. Without ‘all’ the answers, many leaders can either feel exposed, or they can see this situation from a different angle. For example, they can truly lead through collaboration and by leveraging the collective intelligence of their organisation. “We have moved management from command and control to collaboration and empowerment.”

The decision to change

Understanding the need to learn and change is different to actually make that change. This is not easy. Most of us are creatures of habit. Leaders build systems of behaviour that have made them successful. So, letting go and doing something new takes courage and effort. Yet many of the leaders we spoke with are forcing themselves to change, and even enjoying it!

“What I learned before as a leader has been thrown out the window. Today it needs something different. I have become much more open to ideas from the lowest level in the organisation.”

So, what is it like when the way you have been leading successfully for many years has stopped working? This comment describes very well how one leader evolved. “The single biggest leadership change for me has been letting go. I used to own the plan and was obsessed with following the plan. Today, I just paint the big picture and ask people to develop their own plan that is relevant to their unique market.”

The language of leadership

Most effective leaders create a language within their organisation. A set of words and concepts that help the management team and their people to align with the mission. They weave these words into just about every communication and repeat them often enough to become the common language. Done properly, everyone achieves clarity of purpose.

During one interview, the APAC leader of one of the world’s largest and oldest companies, explained with great clarity, how he talks about leadership within his organisation.

“There are three components of leadership that I look for and are the most important to me:

  • Humility – The world is changing so fast that we need to understand that we don’t have all the answers. The value of experience is diminishing and the value of learning is rising.
  • Agility – What we have learned in the last six months can be more relevant than the previous 20 years. We need to take the risk with different people.
  • Authenticity – The need to be an inspirational leader is more important than ever.”

First humble steps

Smart and highly successful people can be humble. In fact, our interviews point to the growing opinion that success is actually becoming much more reliant on humility.

From humility come the necessary qualities of agility and authenticity.

We cannot be agile if we think we always have the right answers, and we cannot be authentic if it is always about us. And acknowledging you are not perfect is the first step.

“I recognised my imperfections and don’t worry about them now.”

There is a growing demand from MNCs to bring in external expertise to help them move the dial.

“As a company, we work as a leadership team with external coaches, to work out what is important as leaders. Leading from purpose brings people along. It’s authentic. Leadership has moved to purpose-led engagement from directive-led. We cannot direct any more, we have to inspire.”

Open conversations

This trend towards leadership humility is introducing a different kind of engagement with employees. The conversation is now becoming two-way, at every level. Of course, it is not possible for leaders to have a direct personal connection with everyone, but we are hearing that this is something they think about a lot.

A new level of openness that communicates the big picture at every level is the starting place for this company. “You always underestimate how much your people appreciate the leadership sharing the strategy with them. It creates passion and engagement. People want to know the big picture.”

This global CEO explained how he has changed his engagement with his people. “As a leader, I work to add value at an individual level. I am never an insider. I am always an outsider. I don’t think of myself as a CEO, but as a coach.”

For this to work, it requires trust. But how is that trust created?

“Effective leadership comes from trust. They need to get to know me. Leadership needs the language of the people here [in APAC].”

This comment was repeated by several of the interviewees: “My top three areas of focus are people, people, people.”

We have all heard this many times over the years, but we now see this as going beyond the words and really taking hold in many companies, beyond the behaviours of individual leaders.

But we also hear a comment that it’s not just inside the business where there is an expectation of humility from leadership, as this bank CEO explained. “There is a new kind of leader required if we are to win back the trust from society.”

Evolving mindset

Change is hard for everyone and none of our interviewees made light of this. They openly admit that they don’t know what is around the corner. “The answer is not on the page.”

“The data is there and so is the computing power. We just don’t know what questions to ask.”

They also know that the style of their leadership team needs to be aligned with the demands of the VUCA environment. “Autocratic leadership does not work anymore. There needs to be a why. Strong relationships, communication, clarity and engagement.”

This needs to be right from the top. “The command and control CEO, those days are done. The younger person does not relate.”

Leadership in the future will require a new mindset that is already evolving. The start point though is the humility to know that we don’t know everything and never will. Human intelligence in business is evolving in a similar way to computer intelligence, from a single processor to more of a distributed network intelligence.


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