The Power of Relationships, Openness, and Trust

humble leadership

Humble Leadership


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.



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.



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?

In our book, we tell the story of an Admiral in the US Navy who commanded a 5000-person organization: namely, an aircraft carrier. On this vessel, an error occurred on the flight deck that could have resulted in the loss of life or of an aircraft. Of utmost concern to the Admiral was the safety and efficacy of flight deck operations. This concern could have been expressed by running immediate and appropriate discipline down through the chain of command so that this error would never happen again. Rather than taking the hierarchical, command-and-control approach, the Admiral invited the deckhand up to the bridge for a personal discussion of the incident. The Admiral was more interested in the insights and trust of the deckhand than the visible meting out of standard punishment and error-correction. This small act of humble leadership had the benefit of creating the trust and respect conditions for adapting to the future rather than just reacting to the past.


How to Develop as a Humble Leader

How does someone deliberately develop as a humble leader?

First, accept that “here-and-now humility” as we have described it will improve work and work outcomes, rather than displaying weakness or vulnerability. Accepting the vulnerability to the information that we do not yet have, and then acting as a group to gather and assimilate as much information as we could collectively process, can propel us in our groups to make better decisions.

Start every day thinking about how the teams you are in or the teams you lead can perform better. Implicit in this is putting aside self-centered aspirations, to-do lists, successful habits, and so on. Not to be flip, but step away from the mirror and the microphone and focus on seeing and listening to key members of your team as whole persons with insights to share. Humble leaders find this liberating.



What are some challenges humble leadership faces in today’s global, mobile, social world?

A great peril in our always-on, hyper-connected world is that we start to lose personal, present, empathic, and real-time connections to the people we work with. We are optimistic, however, that Millennials and their younger colleagues have grown-up with this peril and get it intrinsically. We know of some consultants who curate incentives, awards, or bonuses for individuals and teams that do not involve cash or things; instead, they involve shared experiences. The theory is that younger employees will be most motivated by an incentive to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience with a group. While there may be motivation to seek a cash reward, there may be even more energy to seek a unique shared experience with other people. While our technologies may allow us to work remotely, our motivation to connect and share in person shows no sign of diminishing.

This is critical for humble leadership to take hold – a whole person needs to be in the same room at the same time with another whole person for personization to work. And it might happen in the break times, between meetings, over a quick lunch, on a walk-break, or while not working per se. Contemporaneous three-dimensional presence is still critical for building complete Level 2 relationships.

Develop a Culture of Humility

How does a leader develop a culture of humility?

A culture develops in a group through shared experience over time. If the head of a group sets out to deliberately try to develop a culture of humility, she or he must believe in this here-and-now humility and represent this belief with his or her teammates, peers, and especially with the most senior members of the organization, including the board of directors. Every day the leader should practice and display personization. Personization is a natural easy process in our personal lives, yet at work it may feel uncomfortable, particularly to aggressive ambitious corporate ladder climbers.

For the groups or entire organizations that are ready to value and reinforce a culture of humility, it may be helpful to build personization within work groups into the reward system itself. It is also a necessary step for a leader to regularly ask his or her direct reports, “What are you doing to build Level 2 relationships in your teams?” This emphasis may be even more powerful if it is explicitly built into the compensation plan for each of these direct reports and their teams. If establishing the norm and compensating for it yields palpable and demonstrable success for groups and the organization as a whole, over time it will be woven into the cultural fabric.


For more information, see Humble Leadership: The Power of Relationships, Openness, and Trust.

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