After You: Humility As A Core Leadership Skill

After You: Humility As A Core Leadership Skill

Executive in office meeting

I recently overheard a conversation between two young executives who were enthusiastically discussing their efforts to build their brand as leaders. They debated how best to demonstrate the skills they deemed most essential: confidence, drive, and focus.

I resisted the temptation to interrupt their discussion and share what I’ve learned in my work with presidents and global leaders. One of the most effective—and least recognized—core leadership skills is humility.

In my book, Civility Rules!, I explain that humility is a soft leadership skill, one that suggests a leader who is thoughtful, considerate, compassionate, and understanding. Author Simon Sinek says, “Humility must never be confused with meekness. Humility is being open to the ideas of others.”

That openness to the ideas and contributions of others shows why humility is a trademark of effective leaders. But it’s more than simply welcoming others’ ideas; it’s also acknowledging the value of those contributions and their source. I love what the legendary Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant (who knew a lot about fostering effective teams) says: “If anything goes bad, I did it. If anything goes semi-good, we did it. If anything goes really good, then you did it.”

Earlier in my career, I had the privilege of working for President Ronald Reagan. When I think about humility in leadership, he always comes to mind. When I escorted him to an event, I would step back at an entrance or elevator and invite him to proceed in front of me. Instead, this gracious man would insist, “Oh, no! After you!” It’s a simple act, but figuratively speaking, it is a metaphor for putting yourself last in line after your employees, after your customer. And literally speaking, how many doors have slammed in your face lately as the person before you neglected to hold the door?

George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr., all recognized that they were no more important than those who followed them, and they chose to work beside teams, soldiers, and countrymen.

There are real lessons for transformative leadership in these examples of successful leaders who are willing to listen, to learn, and to value the contributions of others. As CEO of Walgreens, Roz Brewer is responsible for leading more than 450,000 people—not to mention making decisions designed to support and improve the health of millions of Americans. Before being named the Walgreens CEO, she held executive roles in some of the biggest companies in the US, including Starbucks, Kimberly-Clark, and Walmart. But each time she takes on a new role, she focuses on learning. She spends time meeting people, building understanding of the business, and developing an open-minded attitude toward the challenges and opportunities. “I really put myself in a learning position and not in a position of leadership,” she explains. Part of her goal is to become an advocate rather than an expert.

Do humble CEOs make better leaders? A research team from Arizona State University and the National University of Singapore studied data from 105 small and medium enterprises in the US to answer this question. Their results showed that humble CEOS (defined as those who recognized their own strengths and weaknesses and appreciated the strengths and contributions of others) often created better financial returns for their companies. The study, published in the Journal of Management, identified a connection between humility in the CEO and greater collaboration in the C-suite, as well as better decision making at all levels.

Aspiring leaders can learn a lot from this work. Humility doesn’t mean lacking in confidence. Quite the opposite! It requires significant confidence to acknowledge what you don’t know, and to be willing to listen and learn from others. It’s leading through mentorship, rather than dictatorship, inviting collaboration, seeking feedback and insights, and learning from mistakes.

And sometimes, it’s as simple as stepping back and saying, “After you.”

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