I was recently asked a huge question by a leading global organisation
– Q How do we cultivate greater humility among our leadership ranks?
Albert Einstein supposedly said “the release of atomic energy has not created a new problem. It has merely made more urgent the necessity of solving an existing one.” I think the same can be said about technology. It has not created a new problem within humanity, it has exposed existing human problems. This post is an idea, my attempt on how we might address this question and the human problem at the heart of the current state of Leadership.
There is a battle being fought at the very heart of society; that a change in human behaviour is fundamentally required to meet the future landscape of the world.
This shift has been brought on by the combined forces of a new urban close quarter living, technology changing the fabric of society, and the blurred lines between what is work, what is living. It is a shift in what it means to be a civilian, a human, within society.
It’s a global grappling with democracy and freedom, what was historically black and white is now grey, contentious and confusing. More deeply, it’s a grappling with the reality of our own lives, our own purpose and our own truth.
The search for balance, for interpersonal truth, for meaning, contribution and new ways to live life requires a kind of transformation to materialise. With this, the leaders of the future must emerge. The world not only needs new ways to live, it needs new ways to lead and be led.
The new leader will be placed in front of decisions and situations that have never been seen, requiring a new kind of strength.
I want to propose the cultivation of a strength in leadership of a radical kind. I call this new strength ‘Sincere Humility’. It is my position that a foundation of sincere humility will be a key ingredient of the future of leadership of all kinds.
This is an idea, a thought experiment, that could serve as the basis of a kind of learning and development that may be able to seed a viable path to a solution for the global leadership need.
To break this down on a basic level, I pose and answer two questions:
1. What is Sincere Humility?
2. How can it be taught?
What is sincere humility?
Humility, by its very nature, is sincere.
Embodied, active humility results when an individual has the preparedness and resilience to live in complete inward honesty. A persons outside behaviour then becomes a reflection of that.
Humility means changing the threshold of individual acceptability.
At its core, there is one key skill of individual acceptability: the ability to tell yourself the absolute truth.
Having humility, is to deeply understand and mitigate your inner conflict to a level where you are able to separate it from your external environment. This is to say all conflict at its root, is self-conflict and our behaviours are a manifestation of our internal state. Being able to understand this internal state and affect it honestly enables a naturally sincere humility. This is then reflected outward in our environment through behaviour.
To be able to sincerely lead with humility, an individual needs to access their own truth within an instant, in any given interaction. This is, in essence, a combined mastery of an authentic Leadership based in self-awareness, self-assessment, communication, integrity & moral courage, acted out in the moment.
Despite the simplicity of that statement, the journey to mastery is one that requires a depth of understanding, framing and experience that can’t be won in a 5-step program or a one day intensive.
Ultimately, unlike any other skill, when considering behaviour that is founded in sincerity, cosmetic behavioural change is not enough. What you need is transformation and transformation can’t be taught. It is something the individual must choose.
That takes us to the second question:
How can it be taught?
The simple and direct truth is; humility cannot be taught.
On this basis, the challenge changes from cultivating humility itself, to the cultivation of the correct conditions for transformation to take place.
The social psychologists Kurt Lewin, (known for Field Theory) proposed that there are two ways to change behaviour. The first is to apply pressure in the direction where you want people to go. i.e.: you cause change using force leavers like incentive or threat. The second way to change behaviour is by making it easy.
Quickly one can see how the first method contradicts any hope for the presence of sincerity. Let’s look closer at option two; Making it easy.
In thinking about the merit of cultivating sincere humility to a level of mastery, it becomes not about ‘how’ to do this. It’s more of a question of; what’s preventing any individual themselves from doing what is necessary to reach mastery? When this is the question, the role of the teacher changes to one of removing obstacles. Once obstacles are removed, change itself can happen.
As previously defined, humility is a personal, individual transformation such that is something each individual must choose. The focus shifts from teaching specific skills, to creating a model of understanding that sets the space, tools & framework for the student to make that decision with ease.
That is a deceptively simple statement to make. It requires deep, strategic consideration to successfully materialise such an outcome. This is not a path made of tips, tricks and ‘how to’s’ that will cause a swift and efficient change to pop out a “Instant leader” (think the instant noodle of leadership creation).
If what you are really asking is; How do I stop involuntary thought? How do I impact the very core of how I, and each of my people think, act and react? It’s like asking ‘how do I hold the volume of the ocean in a 250ml cup’? You simply cannot;
And this is why this is an ideal focused on the environment needed to transform people into humans that lead with sincere humility, not on humility itself.
It’s about creating an atmosphere and space to ask the question of themselves.
To choose themselves.
To be themselves.
The shift happens when one starts to realise that all the tips and techniques have got them nowhere close to a mastery and true sincerity. In order to do that it requires there to be a letting go of the need to fix or prescribe solutions. The focus then shifts to one of honest cultivation of these conditions, allowing then the space to arrive at truly examining the self.
I am talking about creating a pathway to understanding. The real work. The true transformation will come when the individual chooses this themselves.
This moves against every traditional, normalised approach to skill acquisition. This model is not about the over intellectualisation of an abstract theory of behaviour or technique that provides a trick or hack. There is no qualification, or score. You cannot pass or fail. When I talk about a model, I am not talking about a mental model.
This is about an arrival to personal truth.
An idea to set out a path internally, giving an yourself, the permission to ask yourself real questions. Here is where they you may come to your own true understanding and truth.
There are ways, I am sure, we could build and scale this is by using all the tools available in technology, resource and structure. Using all the knowledge we have to focus on building an atmosphere that leads to truth, humility and transparency.
The best in the world (at anything) don’t become the best in the world by trying to perfect themselves for others. They do it for themselves. It’s a sincere choice of self.
This concept is about creating an environment for yourself, for others, at home and in business, that creates the space and path that gives permission for you and other leaders to choose.
This leadership problem we have, is a human problem.
There are no tricks or a crazy techniques to solve human problems. Cultivating sincere personal truth is one of the hardest life choices of all.
To be blunt, addressing such a fundamental and unique human challenge with old, outdated techniques would be a waste of time. By designing a better environment for ourselves, and others, change will naturally happen.
This question about humans, leadership and creating a future we thrive in is not one I can answer alone, so I will end with a question for you.
How can you use your skills, your technologies, your creativity to change your and our environment to one where we are a people who choose to lead with sincere humility?
IMAGE – Rene Magritte’s painting as part of the La trahison des images
The words on the painting “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.”, are French for “This is not a pipe.” The statement means that the painting itself is not a pipe; it is merely an image of a pipe. A painting about the truth of what is, verse what we choose to look at.
2 thoughts on “What does Humility have to do with Leadership?”
What’s your definition of humility? And why do you think “leaders” need to have it?
You didn’t seem to define “leader”, though I gather, from the context, you’re referring to employees in corporations who are in a position of power. I.e. those employees who have the power to hire and fire other employees. And thus, who have some power over those other employees (albeit only economic power, and then, only a small, limited measure of that).
So what exactly are you trying to say? That powerful people should have less power? Isn’t that kind of like saying that the sky should be more sea-like and the sea should be more sky-like?
If one person has the power to hire/fire other people, what on earth makes you think that any change that person makes in *their* behaviour or mindset would change that power dynamic? Workers are not dumb. They know when their “leader” (i.e. their boss) is trying out some new fancy idea or methodology. And they know that none of that “humility” changes the power relationship in any way shape or form. They know that those above them still have 100% of the power they always had, to hire or fire them.
You haven’t explained how or why anyone benefits from leaders being more “humble”. Who even reads this crap anyway?
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