by Tim Clouting
Humility and vulnerability in leadership seems to be the latest badge of virtue for those in positions of power in either business or sport. Sometimes packaged as servant, supportive or vulnerable leadership, humble leadership has been around as an idea since the 1970s. One of the growing theories is that in a disrupted age, where CEOs and their teams are facing an increasing array of new challenges, humble leadership helps to promote trust, solicits better input, promotes better human engagement and therefore creates more secure foundations for successful transformation.
All very well and good in theory, but in an era where CEOs are expected to be superhumans who can not only create a vision, align teams, overcome hurdles, drive growth through downturns and manage shareholders but do all this while simultaneously inspiring all around them, is humble leadership actually practical in reality? Or are these theories about the best leaders being compassionate and empathetic a naïve myth peddled by management gurus and academics? We asked our guests at a recent Boardroom lunch for CEOs, Chairs and Investors for their views.
Given the increased volume of media attention on business figures over the last few decades, which often centres on high-profile and charismatic individuals like Sir Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk etc. humble leadership doesn’t necessarily get as much press in an era where many of us are mesmerized by celebrity status and big egos. The leaders we hear about in the business world are often colorful characters with strong opinions and bucketloads of charisma. Humility in business is not a quality that has historically been cited or celebrated much in leaders.
Studies echo the intuition that humble leaders are more modest, emotionally stable and eager to learn. But as one CEO guest pointed out, a core part of the role of CEO is to project clarity and confidence at all times. In uncertain, changing times, it was even more important for leaders to be clear about the journey ahead, internally and externally. The CEO of a PE-backed hospitality organisation said that he didn’t think the issue was necessarily to do with being humble or vulnerable, it was more to do with how good you were at building trust. With his owners, for example, he would be as negative as he was positive, seeking to create a no-surprise culture within the boardroom. Once this trust had been established, it is easier for everyone around the board table to be comfortable having robust, open discussions.
Some around the table felt that the adjectives we were using to frame the debate, “vulnerable” or “servant leadership”, were terms many equated with weakness of some sort. One CEO guest highlighted the example of his well-known business mentor, who was not vulnerable in any way but had retained humility throughout his long and distinguished career.
One Chairman guest made the comment that he had worked with all types of personalities throughout his career. He made the observation that Jim Collins, who wrote “Good to Great”, said that great leaders have a paradoxical mix of personal humility and professional will. They’re ambitious for the company, not themselves. The research he conducted suggested this specific kind of leader could deliver superior results.
The Times They Are A-Changin’
Depending on what survey you read, there’s the alarming fact that up to 70% of employees are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” at work, thereby reducing productivity. Dr. Robert Hogan, President of Hogan Assessments, says that “humility is associated with minimizing status differences, listening to subordinates, soliciting input, admitting mistakes and being willing to change course when a plan seems not to work… without some display of humility, others feel underappreciated and under-valued.” In times of transformation and change, these factors can be critical.
It is argued that when the leader is humble, teams perform better as credit is appropriately shared and there is more pride in the work conducted by employees. “Tough” managers can and do improve performance, but they can also increase stress, and stress brings potentially higher turnover (and healthcare) costs. For want of a better term, new data shows that “nice” bosses can be successful if they create/use the right strategies to prevent others from taking advantage of them. Positive social interactions at work boost employee health and in many instances, employees prefer happiness to higher pay. Humble leaders listen to feedback and are willing to acknowledge their mistakes and they will change direction if a decision turns out to be wrong. Collectively, the research shows that humility in CEO’s was associated with greater leadership team integration, greater collaboration and cooperation and greater flexibility in strategic orientation.
One CEO guest who worked for a global multi-national, gave the example of how earlier in her career, when on a senior development programme, a Divisional President participant, who she’d always seen as distant and quite aloof was able to admit that he was naturally introverted and had to make a conscious effort every day to push himself to engage with those around him. In a short moment of authentic connection, the empathy/connection with her boss/colleague deepened in ways it had not in years of working together, which helped build real follower-ship. She now adapted this analogy when leading her own team, so that she will admit she does not have all the answers, and that through acknowledging her/their strengths and weaknesses is the only way she/they will succeed, thereby sharing in the success of delivering the best solution. She believes this approach builds trust, creates a better working environment and crucially delivers superior results.
People Like to Be Heard
Conversely, the ex-CEO of a FTSE 100 gave the example of how he had previously worked for a CEO who believed he had all the answers. In the short-term, he may have done, albeit over time, his style really hindered the senior leadership engagement as no one felt listened to. The Chairman of a PE-backed travel organisation talked about the fact that even if the CEO has all the answers, a good one should still invite debate from the board and the senior leadership team. From a boardroom perspective, he also discussed that if you have a dominant Chairman who also doesn’t want to listen, then there’s not much point being an NED of that business, as you were paid for your experience and to have an opinion. He therefore very carefully selected the boards he sat on, and had previously walked away from boards which he didn’t feel had the right dynamic.
Choose Your Audience
We discussed how as leaders (and employees), we are often taught to keep a distance and project a certain image. An image of confidence, competence and authority. We may disclose our vulnerability to family and friends behind closed doors at night, but we would never show it at work.
The advice from a serial Chairman was to choose your audience. There was a time and place where being humble or even vulnerable could have a fantastic galvanizing effect on the senior team or an organisation – albeit using the same tactic in a formal analyst presentation is unlikely to have the same effect. Another guest made the point that given analysts tend to rate optimistic forecasts more favourably, humble CEOs may be penalised for conveying more conservative, albeit more realistic, forecasts.
One guest gave the interesting example of a humble leader in the sporting area being current England football manager Gareth Southgate, whose style is a world away from the ego-driven, self-absorbed, charismatic leader. Rather he comes across as keen to deflect praise towards the squad and the whole coaching and medical team, more measured, considered, thoughtful and reflective than many other sporting leaders around him.
There are two sides to every argument – vulnerability as a CEO sounds unrealistic to some, rather too touchy-feely. Yet in the context of this discussion, vulnerability was not meant to be about being weak or submissive, but on the contrary, about having the courage to be yourself. It means replacing “professional distance” with some uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. While we may try to appear perfect, strong or intelligent in order to be respected by others, pretense often has the opposite effect intended. Why do we fear vulnerability or think it inappropriate for a workplace? For one, we are afraid that if someone finds out who we really are, or discovers a soft or vulnerable spot, they will take advantage of us. Yet those leaders who are able to be vulnerable and show their humility often attract quality people to work with them who will go that extra mile.
The traditional view of leadership – be firm and a little distant from your employees is still largely adhered too. A little dog-eat-dog, tough-it-out, sink-or-swim culture seems to yield time-tested results and keeps people hungry, working flat-out and on their toes. Albeit there seems to be a shift, partly generational, partly situational to the changing times we find ourselves in – perhaps the ideal, is not to be a humble leader or an autocratic leader, but rather to be a flexible and adaptable leader. Flex your style to the appropriate audience at the appropriate time. Not everyone wants to see vulnerability in their leaders – shareholders certainly don’t.
Some say that modern leadership theory, where the best leaders are collaborative, compassionate, empathetic and free of most defects of character, is based on a myth. Donald Trump’s ascendancy into the White House proves that this certainly isn’t always true in reality. If your organisation is looking for a strong leader who can really get things done, do you have to admit that you may need someone who has rough and unpleasant edges? The past is littered with autocratic leaders who are into every detail and want to take every decision, who are fabulously successful. Perhaps that is the way to be, after all. But as society changes and as Generation Z enter the workforce, perhaps there is a different way ahead. While most people appreciate strong leadership, there are different ways to demonstrate strength and perhaps the future CEOs that we’ll remember in the years ahead will be able to show a slightly more humble way of delivering outstanding results, by being authentic and having values that help build trust throughout an organisation and drive superior performance.
Ultimately, you can’t satisfy everyone. As with most things, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle, with a degree of balance. However, as one of our private equity guests succinctly put it, no one likes dealing with egomaniacs and “life is too short to work with arseholes”.