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Why it pays to be humble

Does it pay to be humble?

Of course not and especially if you are in a leadership position! You need to demonstrate no- nonsense certainty. That’s what your employees expect. Right? Wrong! People follow leaders for a number of reasons but leadership that endures needs a clear ability to demonstrate humility, by visibly embracing mistakes and failure, accepting criticism and acknowledging that other people’s capabilities may be superior to yours. No one person will have all the right answers.

Lessons learned from lockdown 

During lockdown, many leaders have worried about so called “span of control” issues. Gone is the status of the corner office. This is the era of the Zoom call and our home location for online video conferencing speaks volumes, as does the small child or cat suddenly appearing in shot. Delusions of self-regarding dignity and authority can be destroyed in an instant. The humble leader appreciates this and quickly learns not to stand on dignity. The result? It looks like people open up more on a Zoom call.

Hero leaders crash and burn in a crisis

It’s paradoxical that humility among leaders has become so important, given that as a society we continue to celebrate the strong, charismatic leader. It is rare to read about a CEO who shuns the limelight and puts the credit for his success down to his employees.

The closest we got to it recently was when Tim Cook acknowledged that Apple’s success was due to the brilliance of its employees. That disclosure became a much bigger story than the financial success they were reporting. As a more typically charismatic leader, would Steve Jobs have responded with the same humility too if he were in that position?

More recently so-called strong leaders have crashed and burned leaving a trail of carnage in their wake for others to sweep up. Philip Green and Donald Trump are egregious examples. Neither was humble. Neither was plagued by doubt.

Humble leaders foster loyalty

Leaving aside any genetic sociopathic tendencies many leaders feel they can’t display humility because of the pressure to appear faultless and competent. They see being humble as showing a weakness and don’t always appreciate that this leadership style will foster the followship and long-term loyalty that is so essential today.

Most people already have humility inside them but have learned to behave in the opposite way and adopt the traditional ‘hero’ persona instead at work.

As Mark Carney, lately Bank of England Governor commented recently, although people want their leaders to be strong, they also want them to admit they might not know the answer to everything. A leader willing to expose their weaknesses is more likely to engender support and loyalty from fellow employees.

Humility must start at the top

Humility isn’t just relevant at the very top of the leadership ladder, it’s just as important for middle management to demonstrate as it is for the CEO, perhaps even more so. Issues with line management is one of the main reasons cited by employees when they leave a job and it creates huge disruption. Organisations should be mindful of this when they are talent spotting for future ‘high potentials’.  However unless humility starts at the top it’s unlikely the trait will filter down through the layers of management

Great leaders speak on level terms with everyone in the organisation, subtly adjusting their approach and language to make it easy for anyone to express their view. They won’t rely on high level language only used in the C-suite when communicating and will be authentic in as much as they will still ‘be themselves’.

Can individuals be coached to develop humility? The short answer is yes. Most people already have humility inside them, you just have to help them discover it. It certainly pays.


Khalid Aziz

Khalid Aziz is founder and chairman of Aziz Corporate who work with senior leaders and their top teams to improve organisational performance through executive mentoring and coaching and by developing better communication skills to maximise employee engagement. He has spent the last 30 years’ experience working with FTSE 250 companies, offering tailored 1:1 programmes, bespoke group workshops as well as individual, team and group coaching.


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About Aziz Corporate

Aziz was founded over 30 years ago by Khalid Aziz, a media pioneer of his day who at 21 became the youngest ever appointed BBC producer.

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