Humble Leadership – What is it?

I’m continuing to read and explore the concepts contained in Schein and Schein’s book Humble Leadership and I am finding the need to back up just a bit and talk about WHAT humble leadership is and what it is NOT. Schein and Schein make it clear in the beginning of chapter 3 that being a humble leader “does not mean soft or nice”.  Another way of looking at being humble is found in Collins’ book Good to Great. “Level 5 leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company. It’s not that Level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interest. Indeed, they are incredibly ambitious—but their ambition if first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.” (Collins, 2011)

And if we go back to the title of the book, we will see what it does mean. Humble Leadership: The Power of Relationships, Openness and Trust. Those three items in the title tell us clearly what humble leaders understand, embody and demonstrate in their daily actions. So let’s take each one of those three items and explore them just a bit more.


I delved into relationships extensively in one of my previous posts. Relational leadership is becoming more and more of a hot topic in the last 20 years or so and more and more research has been done which indicates that leaders who have high quality relationships with their employees have lower attrition, higher morale, higher productivity and have a higher instance of flourishing in the workplace (Gerstner & Day, 1997; Bezuijen, van Dam, van den Berg, & Thierry, 2010; Scandura, Graen, & Novak, 1986; Vidyarthi, Liden, Anand, Erdogan, & Ghosh, 2010; Meyer & Allen, 1991; Michael, 2011; Mitchell, 2016). The results from these studies are clear – leaders who demonstrate that they value the relationships with their employees help to create positive organizational outcomes as well as positive effects for the employees.

The important part of that last statement is  that positive results happen when leaders DEMONSTRATE that they value the employees and the relationships that they have with their employees. This is where communication comes into the picture. The number one way that leaders DEMONSTRATE that they value the employees is through the communication that leaders engage in with their employees.

Leader Communication and Employee Emotions

Leader Communication and Employee Emotions








Notice how supportive communication leads to positive emotions and unsupportive communication leads to negative emotions. What is really interesting is what happens with the emotions that the employees experience. If they experience positive emotions such as being involved or appreciated, they will demonstrate positive actions such as coming to work on time or volunteering to finish an asignment. But if they experience negative emotions such as feling ignored or uncared for, they are more likely to demonstrate negative actions such as coming in late, or not performing up to the desired standards. One of our roles as a humble leader is to demonstrate our value for others through our communication so that we can invoke positive emotions in others. If we are participants in creating negative emotions in our employees- we run the risk of permanently damaging the relationship and then we will have to fix the consequences of those damaged relationships- which can be frustrating, time-consuming, and unproductive.

A humble leader reminds him/herself “My communication must demonstrate that I value my employees and I care about creating a positive relationship with them”.

But what if we make a mistake and we don’t show that we value the relationship. This is where the next characteristic of a humble leader comes into play- openness.


Openness comes in many forms but it basically comes down to one thing- we are openly honest about what we know and what we feel. Now there is a caveat to that statement- we must know how to frame our statements such that our communication is not hurtful or insensitive. Some people use the word political when they hear me say this. NO! I am not talking about “spinning” a message. What I am saying is that we must recognize that our role as leaders is to provide vision, hope, and inspiration to others while we provide them with our honest assessment.

When I think of openness, I immediately think of President Lincoln’s second inaugural address given in 1865. During that speech, he declared, “Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.” With this statement, he announced what had happened during the Civil War but he did not place blame on one party or the other. He also sought to reunite this country at a very precarious time on our history. His communication was candid and authentic without blame, shame, or humiliation. Another leader who embodies humble leadership and displayed communication that united people together is Nelson Mandela. In May 1994, during his inaugural speech as President of South Africa, Mandela declared, “We shall build a society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall without any fear in their hearts, assured of the inalienable right to human dignity, a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.” Notice how Mandela chooses his words carefully so that he builds community and shares responsibility for helping each other grow and become one prosperous nation. How does your communication work to bring people together?

In addition to being open communicators, as humble leaders, we must be open to new ways of thinking and open to learning new behaviors that will change the culture of our organizations. We must catch ourselves when we find ourselves thinking, “That won’t work” or “That’s not the kind of leader I am” or “I’ve been a leader for decades and I don’t need to change”. Those thoughts will trap us into staying the same and inhibit us from finding greatness. We must be willing to “lay down what’s good and find what’s best” (Diaz, 2015).

When we embody the first two characteristics of valuing relationships and openness, we will be more likely to achieve the third characteristic of a humble leader- trust. Trust is a big topic, so it is one that I will save for another post so that I can do the topic justice.

I have always looked at my role as a consultant as a person who sparks new dialogs and shares new knowledge. I hope I am doing that by sharing my thoughts on this topic of humble leadership.



, , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply