Humility is a crucial component for leadership, at all levels

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We, the People, are hurting. From border-to-border, the West Coast has seen months of fire and smoke. Climate disasters of all types have soared from 2.9 per year in the 1980s to 13.8 per year during 2017-2019. As the third leading cause of U.S. deaths, COVID-19 has already killed 214,000 Americans, sickened nearly 8 million, prevented schools from opening normally, left 24 million people out of work, and caused many businesses and small, to struggle or fail. 

Social unrest has been widespread. Racial problems are unresolved. And our election season features divisiveness fueled by personal mistrust more than policy concerns — mistrust not only of our politicians but of each other.

We, the People, want these and other major problems resolved. Unfortunately, most of us lack the power to do much other than protest and vote, and many of us express frustration that, no matter whom we elect, things are not getting better.

Let’s be clear: It is leaders who have the power to make things better. By leaders, I mean the people selected to lead businesses and nonprofits and the elected people to lead our government at local, regional and national levels. It is leaders that We, the People, turn to for hope. 

Leaders can make a difference, but we have another huge problem: Most leaders don’t recognize that their usual approach cannot solve our problems. Most of our leaders are still focused on winning for their team on believing they have the best answers to “tell and sell” or on trying to shore up their power base for “command and control.” 

But challenges like those above are complex, interdisciplinary, and lacking in historical answers. Ron Heifetz has labeled these “adaptive” challenges. Lacking ready solutions, we have to learn as we go. And the challenges I described involve many stakeholder groups with strong and differing opinions. It’s not surprising that our leaders seem ineffective. Where is the roadmap for handling this mess?

For starters, adaptive challenges can only be resolved by working together. It is time for leaders to embrace their responsibility to hold themselves and their teams accountable for coming up with solutions — ideas that work and implemented successfully. Because our problems are complex and we need to work together, leaders need to recognize it as their job to convene and manage the messy conversations around “what are We, the People going to do to make real progress?” 

There are two important roles for leaders in this: broadening the invitation and facilitating the process. Leaders first need to ask, “Who are all our stakeholders?” We need to invite into the conversation those we like or agree with and those affected by our decisions. If the group is too big to have everyone involved, representatives can be selected — but frequent and structured communication will be needed between the rep and the stakeholder the group as a whole. 

Once a working coalition is formed, leaders need to facilitate a process that yields a path of action that genuinely supports all stakeholders’ needs. Methods for doing this are prominent in the literature available on facilitating discussions, resolving conflicts, solving problems, and communicating. 

However, in managing these conversations, leaders must allow free-wheeling conversation and align people with needs and constraints appropriate to the situation. Leaders have relationships with each stakeholder group, regardless of whether the relationship is good, bad, or neutral. The quality of those relationships greatly influences collaboration and cooperation. If we step all over others’ dignity, we should not expect to gain their support. Central to healthy relationships is leader humility: the tendency to feel and display deep regard for others’ dignity (self-worth). 

This is particularly important when power is decentralized and groups have differing opinions. Working through differences is never easy, but humility goes a long way in allowing people to feel seen and heard. When leaders display regard for others’ dignity, clarify the urgency and constraints of the challenge, and remind stakeholders of the group’s noble purpose — finding a workable solution — compromise is much more likely.

Only by having humility can leaders bring people together. And only by working together can we resolved our complex, major challenges. Tell and sell, command and control won’t work. We need to stop yelling and start having honest, respectful discussions in a room that is open enough to embrace our wide-ranging perspectives genuinely — while challenging us, persistently, to develop solutions that We, the People, agree we can live with. 

Marilyn Gist, Ph.D., is professor emerita of  Executive Programs and Center of Leadership Formation at Seattle University. She is the author of “The Extraordinary Power of Leader Humility.”


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