McKinsey & Company
Share this email LinkedIn Twitter Facebook
Leading Off
Click to get this newsletter weekly
In the words of philosopher Lao Tzu, “To lead the people, walk behind them.” In a business landscape that celebrates the alpha leader, humility might at first glance seem downright “unleaderly.” But research proves that practicing humility is important to leading effectively. Only 10 to 15 percent of adults score highly on various studies rating humility. Yet, the ability to be “other oriented” in your leadership and acknowledge your abilities—and your limitations—can help you lead better and your team reach higher performance levels. This week, let’s explore how practicing humble leadership can move you and those you lead ahead.
Person walking
Humble isn’t humbled
You’ve forged your opinions from careful reflection and tough experience. But if you blindly defend them without being open to other ideas, you risk falling victim to biases and walling yourself off from what could be better thinking. Admitting when you’re wrong can help you become more successful, less anxious, and happier in and outside work. Researchers have found that higher humility scores, based on traits such as openness to advice, also improve resilience in the face of stressful or negative events. But humility doesn’t have to imply professional invisibility or a lack of strength or influence. In fact, it can lead to the opposite. When harnessed well, humility—which is linked to more open-mindedness and reflection—can be a boon for sustaining relationships and guiding and inspiring teams. To practice humble leadership, try expanding your circle beyond yes-people. Welcome challenges with curiosity, and focus on the greater good of your team. Want to see where you fall on the humility spectrum? Take this seven-minute self-assessment.
“I think the balance of confidence and humility is to say: These are not opposite ends of a seesaw. These are actually states that can go hand in hand. Confidence is believing that you can do great things. Humility is knowing that you don’t always have the knowledge and skills to do them yourself.”
So says Adam Grant, organizational psychologist, Wharton School professor, and author of Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know (Viking, February 2021). In a conversation as part of McKinsey’s Modern Leadership series, Grant cuts through the perception that humility is a characteristic only of meek leaders or those with low self-esteem. Rather, he says, humble leadership is a sign of self-awareness and security in both your strengths and weaknesses that opens people up to learning from others and being willing to pivot. He also suggests aiming for “better practices” instead of best practices and “thinking like a scientist” to avoid becoming too tied to one idea or thought process.
That’s the percentage of women who are significantly kinder and more compassionate to others than to themselves, according to research by author and associate professor Dr. Kristin Neff. That number for men is 67 percent. Neff says the human condition is imperfect, but the adoption of what she has dubbed “fierce self-compassion” improves one’s ability to cope, effect change, display emotional sensitivity, and honestly and productively deal with failure.
bookshelf shaped like a human head
Being a humble leader extends beyond your internal team to your company’s customers and stakeholders. Won-Pyo Hong, CEO of Samsung SDS, Samsung’s IT and communications-technology arm, counsels leaders to foster a culture of “humble and speedy.” What does that look like in practice? “Companies that won’t do well embody the opposite traits: they’ll be slow, political, and a little bit arrogant,” Hong says. “They’ll tell the customers what they’re trying to do instead of showing what value they bring.”
Among other factors, personality plays a role in success, and humility may come more naturally to some than others. Studies have found that while extroverts are more likely to hold high-earning jobs, introverts in executive positions are more likely to outperform the expectations of boards or investors. Wherever you fall on the spectrum, both introverts and extroverts can develop awareness of how their personalities affect their leadership and their teams, and they can be intentional about humility as a core tenet of their leadership style. As employees increasingly and more openly prioritize well-being, purpose, and collaboration in the workplace, humble leadership may just be what an evolving workforce needs to thrive and feel inspired.
Lead humbly.
— Edited by Dana Sand, an editorial production manager in McKinsey’s Atlanta office
Click to get this newsletter weekly
McKinsey & Company
Follow our thinking
LinkedIn Twitter Facebook
Share these insights
Did you enjoy this newsletter? Forward it to colleagues and friends so they can subscribe too.
Was this issue forwarded to you? Sign up for it and sample our 40+ other free email subscriptions here.
Copyright © 2021 | McKinsey & Company, 3 World Trade Center, 175 Greenwich Street, New York, NY 10007