Humility: A leadership superpower

Lead Change is a leadership media destination with a unique editorial focus on driving change within organizations, teams, and individuals. Lead Change, a division of Weaving Influence, publishes twice monthly with SmartBrief. Today’s post is by Sabrina Horn.

As a young CEO, humility was not one of my core leadership traits. For the privilege of having those three letters after my name, I figured I’d better have all the answers or at least act like I did

But pretending to know something when you know you do not is faking it, and faking it has a way of catching up with you. Like many first-time executives, I confused humility with a lack of confidence and, therefore, chalked it up as weakness. 

Being humble may not seem like an obvious CEO trait. It is true that you’d be hard-pressed to find a leader who lacked self-esteem or had a sense of unworthiness. In the real world, the CEO does not have all the answers, but does have all the questions and the confidence to ask them. The best leaders have a realistic appreciation of their strengths and weaknesses. They are secure in knowing that they don’t know everything, and they have no problem asking for help, learning from others and even apologizing for their mistakes.

That degree of confidence and open-mindedness draws people in. It levels the playing field for everyone you lead and nurtures a hunger for knowledge and data, thereby driving a culture of learning. For me, such confidence is inextricably linked to curiosity and a mindset receptive to discovery.

So, what does humility in leadership look like?

It is about learning in the moment. It nudges you to double-check and give a second thought to the most important decisions you make. When confronted with an unknown, the curious CEO will find the information needed before deciding how to proceed. Asking an open-ended question like “How will this plan really work?” is infinitely more useful than a yes-or-no question such as “Do you like this plan?” 

One of the most useful questions I employ in everyday situations is “Tell me more?” Instead of a silent shutdown, it creates further dialogue and, with it, the opportunity to get more information. In contrast, the arrogant CEO never admits uncertainty or doubt and instead covers up, stumbles, doubles down on error and falls facedown.

Fakers think that asking questions is for losers. On the contrary, faking it is a loser’s game. It invites exposure as a liar. It’s a lot better to be exposed for an honest mistake than for pulling a fast one. For example, after losing a big sale, I sat down with my team to do a postmortem — not to point a finger, but to learn how to be better. I went around the table to ask everyone how we could improve.

“Where did we miss a step?” “How can we come together on this?” “How can I help us win next time?” “What do you need from me?”

Next, I acknowledged my own missteps and took responsibility for them: “I didn’t have the best connection with their top executive.” “I forgot to make that key point, thanks Jim for picking up on that and chiming in at the end.”

And finally, I took the opportunity to lead forward together: “Let’s institute these new checks and balances.” “We lost this one, but now we know how to win next time.” 

In contrast, the faker CEO completely avoids the relevant issues, denies the problem and blames others: “Get a different guy to sell the product.” “Fire that guy.” “Send out more emails slamming the competition.” “Offer a discount.”

Humility is a superpower in leadership. It is about knowing what you don’t know and having the curiosity, authenticity and confidence to put that out there so that you and your team can find the answers. The ultimate reward rests both in the value of information you might not otherwise get and in the trust that it fosters between you and the people you lead.

Sabrina Horn is an award-winning CEO, author, speaker and C-suite advisor. Her book, “Make It, Don’t Fake It, Leading with Authenticity for Real Business Success,” (releasing June 22 from Berrett-Koehler) aims to help all leaders achieve business success with integrity. Visit her website for more information and to download Sabrina’s free resource, “You Can’t Fake Authentic Leadership: 5 Ways to Fight Faking It.”

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