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It was Gordon McGovern’s first day on the job as president and CEO of Campbell Soup Company.
In those days 40 years ago, Campbell’s senior leaders typically ate lunch in the executive dining room—complete with silverware, starched tablecloths, and a deferential wait staff. But I knew Gordon was a different kind of guy, so I suggested lunch in the employee cafeteria.
We walked through the line with our trays, paid for our lunches, then found a couple of seats at a nearby table. Gordon immediately struck up a conversation with a young woman across the table. “Hi, I’m Gordon. What’s your name?” She said her name was Janie and she worked in the accounting department. “And what do you do here, Gordon?” she asked sincerely, obviously not recognizing her new lunch mate. With a sheepish smile, Gordon responded with “Well, I guess I’ll be doing a lot of things here. I’m the new president of the company.” Assuming Gordon was joking, Janie said with a laugh, “Oh, sure you are. And I’m coach of the Philadelphia Eagles!”
Janie was no doubt embarrassed when someone nearby verified Gordon’s identity, but Gordon rescued the moment by carrying on a conversation with Janie as though they were longtime friends.
People who knew Gordon McGovern described him as highly intelligent, creative, strategic, and—always—humble. That last adjective seemed to be missing when describing most other executives of that time and place. But at any time and place, humility is indisputably a hallmark of the best leaders.
Dr. Marilyn Gist underscores this reality in The Extraordinary Power of Leader Humility.
In addition to being a seasoned consultant and executive coach, Marilyn has impressive academic credentials as former associate dean of business at Seattle University and as director of the Executive MBA program at the University of Washington. Her research is frequently cited by other thought leaders.
Marilyn’s insights on the role of humility in leadership are well worth a close look.
Rodger Dean Duncan: You define leader humility as a tendency to feel and display a deep regard for other people’s dignity. What does this look like as observable behavior?
Marilyn Gist: People observe leaders carefully and form judgments about a leader’s humility from certain behaviors they see. Leaders signal their humility in three prime ways—through their character, the direction they set, and how they treat people. I’ll share an example of each.
Balanced ego is one of the main hallmarks of character that others watch for in leaders. Confidence in yourself is important, but you don’t want to be arrogant. A leader who’s arrogant is conveying superiority over others. Although leaders often hold higher rank than others, that doesn’t mean they are better human beings than those of lesser status. So, leaders with humility moderate their egos when leading.
When it comes to the direction leaders set, people care a lot about vision. This is especially true of younger people who are concerned about issues such as environmental sustainability and social justice. Leaders with humility are sensitive to these issues, too, so they establish compelling visions that clearly support the larger common good. By contrast, a more traditional approach was mainly to increase shareholder wealth, even if that came at significant expense to others.
Finally, one example of how humble leaders treat people is with generous inclusion—of all stakeholders. They consider not only employees and customers, but senior management, board members, vendors, regulators, and so on. When decisions are being made that can affect others, especially decisions that might have a negative impact, humble leaders care enough about the dignity of those groups to bring them into the process. These leaders seek input, communicate about the approach being used to reach a decision, keep others informed about progress, and offer real-time explanations about why the decision may not be able to satisfy what others want.
Duncan: What do you see as the tell-tale signs of “counterfeit” or feigned humility?
Gist: I’ve worked with many organizations that have a vision statement on the wall that implies, “Employees are our most important asset.” Yet I’ve also heard many employees volunteer that this is bull. They quickly tell you if they are treated poorly and detail how that happens. Sometimes it’s a breakdown between policy and human resource practices, such as not offering market-based rewards or fair treatment of employees.
But they also describe weaknesses in individual leaders. I define humility as feeling and displaying a deep regard for others’ dignity. It’s hard to fake this if you don’t feel it. Others’ dignity means their sense of self-worth, and you must deeply feel that everyone matters. Otherwise, what you tell people will be overshadowed by what you do.
For example, when leaders micromanage, they assume they are superior and violate others’ dignity. When leaders don’t genuinely value diversity, their belief that some groups are superior shows up in comments and actions that violate others’ dignity. When leaders are arrogant or concerned mainly with their own personal gain, their belief in their own superiority is seen as more “true” than any communication that others really matter.
Duncan: Some leaders seem to regard humility as a sign of weakness. What would you say to disabuse them of that notion?
Gist: It’s counterintuitive, but true, that the earth revolves around the sun. It may also be counterintuitive, but leader humility is a strength. Plenty of research supports this.
Leading means relationship. You can get the job done only by working with and through other people. And fundamental to any healthy relationship is support for others’ sense of self-worth. Leader humility does not mean meekness or weakness, but simply showing genuine regard for others’ dignity.
Duncan: In what ways can a leader balance humility with confidence?
Gist: I’ll quote Tim McGraw singing Humble and Kind on this—“When the dreams you’re dreaming come to you, when the work you put in is realized, let yourself feel the pride, but always stay humble and kind.”
It’s important for us to recognize our strengths and achievements, and there are times to publicly accept accolades and honors for them. But, on the job, a leader’s status is generally known already. What others need is to see is that their dignity matters to the leader.
Duncan: A keen sense of self-awareness is helpful to anyone in any organizational role. What can a leader do to gain a high level of self-awareness?
Gist: This is one of the biggest challenges in developing great leaders. As a group, leaders are so goal-oriented and outwardly focused that they often neglect self-reflection. They can begin by asking themselves daily, “What are one or two things I did especially well today? And what are one or two things that could have been done better?” Be sure to include conversations you had, whether by phone, email, or face-to-face interactions with people.
Over time, it can help to invite others to give their input on these questions. Phyllis Campbell, Chair of JP Morgan Chase Northwest, said she leaves many meetings by asking of her team, “What are three things could I have done better?” This practice has helped her listen, learn, and excel.
Duncan: When new leaders enter an organization, people want to “size up” what they can expect. How can a new leader help facilitate this getting acquainted process without coming across as arrogant or self-promoting?
Gist: I recommend you prioritize others’ dignity first by expressing appreciation for being there—for the opportunity to join the organization. Acknowledge whatever strengths you see that drew you there and mention a couple of relevant strengths in your background to inspire confidence that you are the right person for the job. For example, you might say, “I’m impressed with the rapid growth in your product lines. My ability to triple revenues when I was Chief Marketing Officer at ABC, Inc. makes me very excited to join this team and contribute to your future success.” Let people know you look forward to working with them and getting to know them.
Then offer a couple of broad examples of the initial direction you want to pursue. But avoid being too specific. For example, you might say that you know the past year has been challenging and you want to ensure a smooth recovery that returns us to past levels of success. Or you want to ensure a safe return to the office while offering more flexible schedules than in the past. After sharing these examples, mention that you will be inviting input from others as you get to know the organization and that you’ll communicate further as plans shape up.
These types of examples give a sense of your competence and priorities while signaling an openness to learn and desire to include people in your decision making. They also avoid making specific commitments you may later need to withdraw as you discover what is really needed.
Duncan: Most change efforts are met with various forms of resistance. How can a leader deal with that resistance while maintaining appropriate humility?
Gist: Fear of loss is typically underneath resistance to organizational change. People worry about losing things they currently value. “Will I have to give up my territory and the relationships I formed that help me do my job?” “If I have to learn new skills or procedures I’ll lose my sense of competence and feel like a beginner again.” “Do I have to leave my current coworkers and join new ones?” “I’m going to end up with a longer commute if we change locations.” These are the kinds of losses people fear when change is announced.
Leaders tend to focus on the benefits of organizational change, but the people affected have concerns that are deeply personal and quite real. Leader humility is a great asset. Feeling and displaying regard for others’ dignity helps a leader shift from what could appear to be callous disregard for the downsides of the change to careful listening to concerns about its impact.
This may lead to adjustments that offset the losses, such as including those affected in the design of new territories or offering flexible schedules in response to longer commutes. At the very least, a leader with humility would genuinely acknowledge the potential losses. He or she should show concern by asking people to give the change a try and provide feedback as it gets underway—then clarify potential benefits of the change for the affected group.
Duncan: One responsibility of a good leader is to prepare other people for leadership roles. How does humility fit in that mentoring?
Gist: Jim Sinegal, cofounder and former CEO of Costco, is emphatic that much of managing is teaching. He also told me:
“It’s very difficult to teach ‘people skills.’ When we name managers, we have to feel pretty confident that they have good people skills. Certainly, we’ve made some mistakes. We like to think we’re developing a culture that’s ‘jerk free.’ If someone hates his boss, you get turnover. We’ve seen some situations where we’ve turned people around, but if they are not responsive after a couple of tries, you need to move them to a job where they have less supervision of people.”
A major reason Costco has been so successful is that leader humility is baked into its corporate culture. I believe it’s an example for others to emulate.
First, we need to coach people on the importance of humility as they progress into leadership roles. They need to understand that leading well means building strong relationships and that humility is the essence of working together in a healthy way. Second, we need to select people with humility when we make promotions or hire for leadership roles. This is too rarely done, even though the impact on culture can be devastating otherwise.
Duncan: How can an arrogant, self-important person be taught the value of humility—to the point of sincerely adopting it as a default mindset and behavior?
Gist: Unfortunately, some arrogant, self-important people cannot be taught. As Sinegal noted, some people are not responsive to the need to improve their people skills and you need to move them to a job where they have less supervision of people.
The good news is that others can be taught. I’ve worked with many people who are arrogant and self-important because they think it helps them in leadership. Once they understand that it’s harmful, that humility will yield better results for them, most people become interested in what it takes to adapt their approach. They can learn more appropriate behavioral skills rather quickly.
This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.