5 Ways to Exercise Humility for Optimal Leadership

It’s little surprise that CEOs these days are demonstrating doses of humility. Between intensifying competition, a stubbornly slow-growing economy and an increasing number of CEOs publicly apologizing for their companies’ mistakes, the realities of business are laying many of them low. And many business chiefs firmly believe the best way to adapt, overcome and grow is from a foundation of humility.

Examples abound. Procter & Gamble CEO A.J. Lafley struck a humble tone during last month’s annual shareholder meeting of the CPG giant, no doubt influenced by his inability to move the performance needle enough to execute a true turnaround in his second stint in that job.

Notably, last winter AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes took some of the edge off the crash of one of the airline’s jets into the Java Sea with 162 people on board, the first deadly accident for the 14-year-old carrier that has made air travel affordable for tens of millions of people in fast-growing Southeast Asia. Fernandes put himself in the spotlight immediately, but in a humble way— apologizing for the loss of life and quickly taking to Twitter to communicate shock and sympathy to his 1 million followers.

“Ask “What Would Trump Do?”—and do the opposite.”

Those two CEOs have helped resurrect a tradition of the old school of corporate chieftains from an era when very few even knew who they were, much less celebrated them, as business leaders have been over the last generation. One of those celebrated was Darwin Smith, longtime CEO of Kimberly-Clarke, who transformed the company from enduring losses to industry-leading performance—yet was quoted as saying, “I never stopped trying to become qualified for the job.”

Here’s how CEOs and management experts say today’s chiefs can strike an appropriately and sincerely humble stance.

1. Ask “What Would Trump Do?”—and do the opposite. The real estate magnate may be a success at his job and his celebrity status may be drawing in voters, but he’s hardly humble. And his type of braggadocio won’t work for most CEOs today.

Instead, maybe Ashley Morris is a better example. The CEO of Capriotti’s Sandwich Shop is continually saying that he’s “the dumbest person in the room” because he believes a leader should understand his weak points and hire a team that complements or supplements his skills..

2. See that actions speak louder than words. Nothing demonstrates humility more than actually acting humble.

Rodney Anderson, founder and CEO of Pancheros Mexican Grill, a fast-casual chain, actually worked every single job upon launching Pancheros, including dishwasher, janitor, cashier and cook, to get the most authentic sense of his business and to understand what his employees would be dealing with.

3. Notice how humility empowers others. One of the best outcomes for acts or attitudes of humility by a business leader is that it encourages peers or charges to assert themselves more.

“CEOs who have humility allow room for their really smart people to step up,” said Karissa Thacker, an executive coach at the Fortune 100 level. “Humility looks like listening more, learning all the time versus relying on what worked in the past, and occasionally saying, ‘I don’t know.’”

Added an executive of Bates, an executive-coaching firm: “Humility is not only an issue of winning the respect and trust of others; it is also connected to team performance and execution. [It] enhances the empowerment, initiative and integration of top management team members. And it has cascading effects, producing a more positive organizational climate that enhances the job performance of middle managers.”

4. Differentiate between personal and corporate humility. Just because a CEO takes a humble approach doesn’t mean he apologizes for his company or his brand.

“There’s a difference between touting your company’s capabilities, accomplishments and vision versus just promoting yourself,” observed Phil Friedman, CEO of CGS. “Highlighting what is great about your company is fundamentally different from seeking attention for your personal accomplishments.”

5. Don’t confuse humility with something else. Some observers believe that Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is demonstrating humility when he steps boldly into social issues such as high tuition rates and racial inequality and simply admits he doesn’t have it all figured out.

But not only is such an admission not much more than acknowledging the obvious, some would argue that the highly visible Schultz is pushing Starbucks into social-issue arenas where it isn’t wise for the brand to go, despite its success selling coffee.

For a CEO’s humility to be effective, it must be more than the management philosophy du jour, or a mere characterization of actions and an approach that can be interpreted a number of ways, experts said. It must be the long-term result of a sincere and deliberate effort by the chief and reflect his or her real character.


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