"Humility is a virtue all preach, none practice; and yet everybody is content to hear." - John Selden
The concept of humility has been around for as long as religion. Recently, the benefits of being humble have been showing up in unexpected places, like the business world. More than ever, humility has become an essential characteristic for leaders of successful 21st century organizations.
Bringing a humble attitude is important for today's business leaders because it can keep our eyes open to innovation, our ears tuned to new ideas that might previously have been discarded. Demonstrating humility connects us to others on a human level and inspires people.
Like most "virtues," however, it is one thing to talk about humility and entirely another to practice it. How do you bring humility to your interactions with your people? What about with your boss? Your customers?
These 9 practices can bring out the strength in humility and open pathways to connection and growth.
9 Ways to Practice Being a Humble Leader:
1) Let it be known: You don't have all the answers. When you don't know how to do something, expose it.
Most of us think we have to have a really good point when we talk. We wait until we have something thought-through to say. Humility is opening your mouth when you don't have it all together. It's as simple as sharing a possibility. Go to a meeting to learn -- just learn. Then, share an idea without making the whole case for it. See what you can learn from others by simply opening a thought, rather than landing a point.
2) Admit you were wrong about something.
In this year's letter to shareholders, Warren Buffett offered a mea culpa, admitting three big mistakes he'd made. He noted that his forecast for the residential real estate market was "dead wrong." And he called the decision to spend $2 billion to purchase bond issues of Energy Future Holdings a "big mistake." Not only does admitting wrong prevent further loss, as Don Dion points out here, it opens a possibility for all of us. If the "Oracle of Omaha" can be wrong and admit it, so can we. It's easier to trust and follow a leader who isn't perfect, because we know none of us are.
3) Share something about yourself that you'd consider to be very petty.
While this could take many forms, you could share something that annoys you. It could be as petty as admitting it annoys you when someone chews gum while talking, that interrupting makes you crazy or that people checking their phones constantly distracts you. This one is a bit tricky because it looks like it's not humble to share our pet peeves. It's actually quite humble to admit how petty we all can be. Don't we all get annoyed by certain little things? Play it out: It may be worse to be distracted by your own annoyance during an important conversation. Sometimes to give others our full attention and care, we need to share what bothers us, as embarrassing or uncomfortable as it may be.
4) Say you're sorry.
Just recently, a long-time business partner opened up her staff meeting by admitting something she hadn't been dealing with: "This thing is a mess, and it's my fault." In many ways, it was a non-event: Her team appreciated it and the meeting moved on. The lasting impact, however, was huge. This particular area of the business now has the possibility of getting cleaned up, and therefore has a new future. As Erika Andersen points out in this Forbes piece, admitting full responsibility for a wrong and authentically apologizing is brave. It's inspiring.
5) Receive and embrace acknowledgment.
Let people see you receive the pleasure of the gift they're giving you. Sometimes a plain thank-you can make a big difference. You know what it's like when someone won't receive your acknowledgment, or is embarrassed when you give them a gift. Deflecting compliments and ducking acknowledgments is often mistaken as the way to demonstrate humility, but it just frustrates the acknowledgment giver. Though it may be uncomfortable to let it in and say thank you, doing that with humility is satisfying and real.
6) Expose a weakness or vulnerability.
Start with the business results at stake, then open up about the things you need to change about you in order to produce those results. A fellow CEO in South Africa was out to grow his business and take the #1 spot among best companies to work for. On several key occasions throughout his three-year journey to that goal, he shared with large groups of his people -- sometimes 50 people at a time, once at an all-staff conference of 300. He told them that part of his journey was to change his controlling style of leadership. He shared that he wanted to be the type of leader who inspires, not commands. That kind of exposure inspires others, because they can be as human as you and model your courage.
7) If you got hurt or offended by something, share it with the person involved.
Here's another one that's a bit counterintuitive. We often think humility means "sucking it up" and moving on when we get hurt. Unfortunately, under the surface we do get hurt by small things. No one likes being excluded from an important meeting, or getting an agenda item cut after spending a lot of time preparing, or feeling that no one's listening to our point of view. Typically, what we do is get mad on the inside and try to let it go. It can be much harder to acknowledge that you're hurt, and then say something so you can let it go. Doing so leaves us with good, clean, whole relationships with those around us. Leaving nothing unsaid can be very humbling, and very rewarding.
8) Learn from a place where you lost.
We all know that losing gracefully is smart. Admitting that others are better than you and authentically asking for their help is the genius of humility. Early in his career, young ad executive Peter Georgescu (who later went on to become CEO of Young & Rubicam) lost a big account. He lost when he was sure he would win. Within moments of receiving this news, he asked the executive, whose business he had just lost, to please help him understand what he couldn't see. Her answers became the seeds of what would become a new, customer-centric model that (after eight more failed attempts and learning opportunities) would lead him to never again lose another major account.
9) Be willing to laugh at yourself.
When a leader laughs at him or herself, it lightens up and levels the space. It brings freedom to being human. People become more creative because they have room to think rather than worry about looking good. It also puts things in perspective when you get you're not the most important thing in the world. This works especially when the situation is heavy. Be willing to know your own quirks and have a little fun with them.
We all have places where we naturally bring humility. You'll find some of these practices easier than others based on your own style. The challenge is to go where you don't normally go in the practice of being a humble leader. Ultimately, humility will help you grow. When the leader grows, everyone else can grow. And when everyone's growing, the business grows as well.