The stereotypical view of a good business leader is an excessively confident, decisive executive who has a top-down style of leadership. Think Jack Donaghy’s character in 30 Rock. Lots of charm and bluster. A control freak. The smartest guy in the room.
But recent research shows something surprising—the best leaders often display humility and cede control to other capable individuals. They’re far from the intimidating “business titans” of the past.
A reader of Vic Ketchman’s blog on the Green Bay Packers sums it up nicely. He’s talking about renowned Packers GM Ted Thompson: “I think self-deprecation is a mark of high intelligence and cunning. It shows you can understand your flaws and, at the same time, deflect some of the high expectations away from yourself. That leader is a genius who gives all the credit to the staff and team members. That’s a guy I would be inspired to work for.”
The research bears this out. Employees working with humble leaders were more likely to engage in team citizenship, or going above and beyond their job description. They were also more likely to feel like they belonged at their job and were more likely to generate innovative ideas, according to Harvard Business Review.
Becoming an inspiring leader is no easy task. But by cultivating a humble attitude, you’ll gain the respect of your employees. Here are some techniques humble leaders are using and a characteristic that great leaders share.
Seek out multiple perspectives: One key thing that humble leaders do is solicit feedback. Employees want to work for leaders who value their opinions. This is especially true when a leader first stars at an organization. Not only does this demonstrate that you’re interested in what employees have to say, but it allows you to gain all the facts before acting.
In today’s constantly changing business world, no one person has all the answers. By considering multiple perspectives, you’ll be able to weight the benefits and costs of each.
Resist giving orders: Consistently telling people what to do and how to do it will create a less-human atmosphere. In other words, you’ll have a bunch of robotic “yes men” working for you.
Allowing employees to do their jobs in the way they see fit will create an atmosphere that values good ideas and better ways of doing business instead of the status quo. Of course, there will be times when it’s necessary to provide direct instructions. However, your employees will be happier at work—and the business will run better—if you minimize top-down management.
Have a sense of humor: As the quote about Thompson notes, self-deprecation is a tool business leaders can use. While no one expects you to be a stand-up comedian, ensuring that your employees know that you don’t take yourself too seriously is important.
By doing so, you’ll decrease that feeling of distance between employees and leadership. This way employees will perceive you as someone they can talk with. When they have an issue, they’ll come to you. You’ll gain more information about the day-to-day workings of your business. And you’ll create trusting relationships with your employees.
Admit mistakes: Let’s face it: You’re going to mess up at some point. It might be something small, or it might be something large, but it’s going to happen. When you do, tell your employees that you’ve made an error. Some might say that this is showing weakness. It is showing weakness, but only normal, human weakness!
Don’t try to hide or cover up errors. Show employees what you’re doing to fix it and ensure that it doesn’t happen again. People appreciate when leaders show that they’re not infallible. This helps create an atmosphere in which it’s acceptable to take reasonable risks—which is where innovation happens.
Play the credit game: You’ve heard of the blame game, right? Instead, spread credit for a job well done as often as possible. The self-promoting leader is a thing of the past. Praise employees for a job well done. Be sure that you give credit where it’s due to everyone who works hard for your business. Employees who have humble leaders have reported that they feel unique because their leaders recognize their talent and skills.
The opposite is true too — there’s typically no reason to publicize an employee’s mistake. Talk with them one on one about it.
Focus on Learning: A humble leader knows that business is always changing. This is why learning is key to being successful. Always be asking questions and honing new skills. When you or your people make errors, look at that as opportunity to learn.
Recent data shows that two-thirds of employees think that their employer isn’t doing enough in terms of professional development. Foster a culture of learning at your organization that encourages employees to keep learning. Be a role model yourself by going to conferences and training sessions.
Don’t micromanage: A leader who spends too much time keeping tabs on employees isn’t going to gain their trust. If you feel the need to constantly be checking employees’ work, then you need to hire better.
As a leader, your responsibility is to hire the best people, to train them well and to get out of their way. This creates opportunities for employees to take leadership roles. Indeed, strong leadership is about knowing when to take control but also when to cede control.
Be self-aware: Nothing frustrates employees more than when leaders don’t follow their own advice. Being a good role model from employees is a step toward gaining their trust. Don’t just stand in front of your employees and load them up with unsolicited advice. Act how you would expect your best employees to act—responsible, engaged and thoughtful.
At Viral Solutions, we work with small business leaders to improve their digital marketing techniques every day. We understand that leadership is a complex thing. Exceptional leaders strike a balance — they know when to sit back and listen and when to take charge.
Thomas von Ahn
Chief Elephant Slayer for Viral Solutions LLC
“Achievement seems to be connected with action. Successful
men and women keep moving. They make mistakes but they
don’t quit.” — Conrad Hilton