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The Role of Humility in Leadership

Lavon Winkler, Former CEO, FLEXcon, N.A.

Early in my career, I was asked to lead one of five engineering teams that worked on very complicated projects, some with thousands of hours of work time. The company I worked for wanted me to lead a group comprised of 30-35 engineers, technicians and support people. They were ranked dead last in productivity and quality, and morale was at an all-time low. Typically, managers for such groups were required to have 8-10 years of experience and hold a professional engineer license. I had neither of those qualifications, so while flattered at the company’s faith in me, I was also quaking in my boots. With a lump in my throat, I asked the Director of Engineering, “Sure, I’m interested, but what do they do?” Without hesitation he said, “Don’t worry. You’ll figure it out.” And, so, I was promoted to lead this troubled group.

Colleagues Talking

I recall thinking, “How can I direct the work of these people? I have no answers for them. I don’t even know what they do!” Then I realized that the best thing I could do for them was to create an environment that would enable the work to get done. After all, these folks weren’t slouches. They were highly intelligent people trapped in a dysfunctional situation. 

I started working with the team to understand their problems and frustrations, and sought their advice on how processes could be improved to alleviate them. Little by little, together we removed obstacles and developed standard processes for our work, which resolved many of the issues. I didn’t direct their work. I enabled and encouraged it, and we celebrated our successes along the way. After a year, the team had made a complete turnaround, ranking first in quality and second in productivity, and morale was through the ceiling. No one had been replaced or even reassigned.

Looking back, I had no choice but to assume a humble leadership role due to my lack of knowledge about their work, but it turned out to be just what the doctor ordered. More importantly, it taught me that great success can be realized by the workers in the improvement process and showing them genuine appreciation for their contributions. Decades later, that lesson is still with me.

Humility supports a learning environment.

FLEXcon employees will tell you that I often say, “Humility is the window to learning,” and I sincerely believe this to be true. As leaders, when we humble ourselves by admitting that we don’t have all the answers, and seek the input and talents of others, we open ourselves to learning from those who have the most knowledge and expertise (i.e. our employees). In doing so, we come to better understand the obstacles and challenges they face, and this then enables us to understand their needs and allows us to take action with an eye toward fulfilling those needs, thus achieving better results for our companies. This modeling of teachability fosters a learning environment where it’s safe to ask questions and experiment with possible solutions to problems. Furthermore, all are encouraged to share their knowledge, expand their expertise, and continually improve.

Humility is the window to learning.

– Lavon Winkler, Former CEO of FLEXcon North America

Humility shows respect. 

When there is any kind of process issue, the most respectful thing we can do is go to the person doing the work to learn about their process and what they think the problem may be; the goal being to understand the problem with the process as opposed to blaming the employee for any adverse outcome. By engaging with employees in this way, we are recognizing that they have the most knowledge and expertise in their respective areas and, therefore, are best-equipped to identify the problem and develop process improvements, helping to ensure that we reach the best possible solution. Think about it: when your car breaks down, you don’t sit in a room with a group of friends to try and figure it out. You take it to a mechanic who can find the cause and fix it – an expert. So, what better way to resolve a process issue at its root cause than to work with an expert – the person who works within that process every day and knows the most about it?

The result of showing respect to employees in this way is that you allow them to feel comfortable in flagging issues, and you empower them to problem-solve and take responsibility for outcomes. Even if the final determination is that the worker simply made a mistake, all can learn from it. Mistakes are simply opportunities for improving processes, and in a learning environment, they are the teachers that help us to achieve our full potential.

Humility results in greater leadership effectiveness.

When leaders acknowledge their own limits and engage employees in problem-solving, they demonstrate a moral virtue that fosters trust in their followers. In fact, a paper published by Milton Sousa and Dirk van Dierendonck in 2015 in the Journal of Business Ethics presents empirical evidence of the impact that the humility of leaders can have on employee behavior and levels of engagement. In it, van Dierendonck, professor of Human Resource Management at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, identifies humility as one of the six key characteristics of servant-leader behavior. He found that humble leaders had the highest impact on follower engagement, and that the moral virtue of humility seems to strengthen their impact, especially for leaders in senior hierarchical positions. Translation? By acknowledging their personal limits, highlighting the strengths of their employees, and showing a willingness to learn, humble leaders foster greater employee engagement, job satisfaction and a learning orientation, all of which result in a higher level of trust and loyalty toward the leader and, therefore, greater leadership effectiveness.

While some fear that being humble may be perceived as weakness, the fact of the matter is that humility is a strength that allows the most effective leaders to illuminate the path to success for their employees and, therefore, their companies. Now, if that’s not success, then what is?

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