To be successful today, leaders must develop relationships based on openness and trust. Leaders can no longer rely on formal hierarchical structures and processes. Instead, the new era of leadership is based on service, on teamwork, and even on humility.
In their new book, Humble Leadership: The Power of Relationships, Openness, and Trust, authors and organizational culture experts Edgar H. Schein and Peter A. Schein introduce their new model of leadership based on personal relationships. I recently spoke with them to learn more about their perspective and research.
“Leadership is wanting to do something new and better, and getting others to go along.” -Edgar and Peter Schein
Traditional versus Humble
To get us started, compare and contrast traditional leadership with “humble leadership.”
We see two common myths surrounding “traditional leadership” that humble leadership calls into question. First is the heroic “I alone” myth that suggests that the greatest leaders rise to the top on their own individual brilliance. By contrast, humble leadership proposes that leadership occurs throughout an organization, at all levels and in all roles, and reaches its pinnacles of success when groups drive better decisions and achieve better outcomes.
The second myth is that organizations are machines, directed with command and control, most successful when they can be described as a “well-oiled machine.” Humble leadership proposes that this is at best an antiquated view of organizations. Instead we think of organizations as living systems capable of cooperative resource sharing and adaptation better suited to the volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous (VUCA) world we are only now starting to accept.
“Humble means accepting that no individual can know more or make better decisions than any group at work.”
What do most people get wrong when they think of humble leadership?
Humble leadership is not about humility in the individual or religious sense. Humble means accepting that no individual can know more or make better decisions than any group at work. Humble means I go to work embracing the fact that I do not have all the answers and will do a better job by asking for help and helping others in the group to arrive at the best decisions. In Ed Schein’s Humble Leadership series, he refers to this framing of humility as “here and now humility.”
We see leadership as a verb not an entitlement. The foundational idea is that humble leadership requires the formation of personal relationships (at work and home) that allow two people or a group to achieve more than the sum of their individual outputs.
In Humble Consulting and Humble Leadership, a human relationship model is presented that describes human relationships in four levels. Level 1 is domination and exploitation (think prison guards or shop floor bosses in a sweatshop). Level 1 is transactional role-to-role interaction, cordial but typified by “professional distance.” Level 2 is a cooperative empathic connection between two whole persons formed by inquiring and sharing information. A Level 2 relationship is based upon, and continually reinforces, openness and trust. We refer to the process of creating Level 2 relationships as “personization.” Level 3 adds intimacy to openness and trust. This Level 3 ability to “finish each other’s sentences” is typically associated with lovers more than co-workers, though we do see Level 3 relationships in the highest performing teams (e.g. SEAL teams, orchestras, improv performers, and so on).
The essence of humble leadership is building Level 2 relationships with the people around you in order to improve and maximize information flow (openness) and cooperative work (trust). With these Level 2 relationships, anyone can arrive at work with here-and-now humility, knowing that he or she does not have all the answers, and confident that with inquiry and curiosity, better answers and outcomes will result.
Would you share an example of humble leadership?