Listening to the leader address his people in a loud display of bravado, heroics and overly simplified descriptions of the competitive threat at hand, I sighed. What the leader was trying to project was strength, clarity and an “I’ve got this” air of confidence. What was missing, besides a more poetic, inspirational call to action, was a dose of humility needed to question whether the well-trodden path to success they had been on for literally hundreds of years could use a little reflection and reinvention. Certainly, self-confidence helps us own our strengths and build on success…until we dial it up a notch too far, and it becomes arrogance that blinds us to other possibilities, shuts down dialogue of differences, and stunts growth.
In our work with hundreds of leaders and dozens of global organizations over the past 20 years, we have seen that no single leader or company is immune to overusing their strengths, and becoming overly comfortable and self-congratulatory. Even the most grounded and well-balanced leaders can fall prey to over-relying on certain strengths, as they can’t imagine that what has worked in the past might not have the same relevance going forward. In fact, we have noticed that the stronger the strength, the greater the risk of leaders and their companies in taking it too far. Why? Sometimes we just can’t imagine too much of a good thing. Other times, we identify so strongly with our past successes and unique strengths that we perceive any questioning of those core strengths as an existential threat and we dig in further, defending our processes, our approaches, ourselves. When we over-rely on our strengths and past formulas for success, we stop exploring, listening and learning to other ways forward.
Humility is the antidote to the risk of over-confidence in our strengths. Humility acknowledges that there are many paths to excellence and invites reflection and receptivity to change. Humility recognizes that there is something bigger that we are in service to creating. Humility encourages healthy inquiry, seeks contrasting views and looks to forge a middle ground between differing perspectives. Being humble ultimately is about understanding that everything is always evolving, especially in an age of exponential change, and while we have contributed value or achieved excellence in the past, there is something greater seeking to emerge now, if we can create enough space to hear it, to see it, to embrace it.
Humble leaders know that space allows – space allows for true dialogue among those with divergent views, it allows for inquiry, exploration, experimentation, innovation and change. Without space to pause, challenge our assumptions, widen our perspective and let go of limiting beliefs, we become overly attached to past pathways to success, often trapped in protecting existing ways of thinking, doing and being.
This month, several colleagues and I are exploring how humility is a precursor for organizational reinvention. What do you think? Have you experienced the power of humility in organizations or leadership? When you see it in action, what is possible that would not be possible without humility?