The benefits of humble leadership

We know that effective leadership isn’t based on the ‘command-control’ model. Good leaders should enable people to bring their best selves to work, be considerate of the barriers people face and work to remove them.

Power can cause some leaders to become obsessed with control and outcomes, which ends up with employees being treated as a means to an end. This treatment can ramp up fear — fear of not hitting targets, fear of losing bonuses, fear of failing — and as a consequence, people stop feeling positive, and their drive to experiment and learn is stifled.

Many organisations are still managed on positional power, control and certainty. They ensure that their people carry out narrowly focused tasks, the way they were told. But this style of leadership is no longer effective in the rapidly changing world of work. Today we need employees to be innovative and experiment with new things to find solutions.

Positional power tends to be accompanied by the attempt to squeeze as much as possible out of an individual to meet outcomes, rather than giving them space to explore and learn. This is ultimately counter-productive. People are more motivated by intrinsic factors like a sense of purpose and ownership, than outcomes like KPIs or rewards. So, they’ll do their best work when they really believe in it, not just when there’s a bonus at the end. 

Leaders need to create an environment of psychological safety, so that people feel confident to try things out and learn. Humble leadership is about giving up power and taking risks in order to unlock individuals’ potential. It requires stepping outside the comfort zone of control and certainty, where people do what they’re told.

But what’s in it for the leader themselves? A lot, in fact:

  • They gain increasing opportunities for promotion. When a leader holds the power and control, they become indispensable, so it’s much more difficult to step away from the team.
  • People will want to do more for leaders who help them grow and find meaning in their work.
  • The leader’s own wellbeing is boosted by creating a sense of purpose for other people.

Simple changes can be made to gradually shift attitudes and transform even mundane jobs into meaningful activity. It’s about engaging with teams, rather than telling people how to do their jobs. It’s asking how things could be done better. Listening builds trust between leaders and employees, which helps overcome resistance to organisational change.

By letting go of control and activating individuals’ natural curiosity, leaders can free people to work creatively in their own way. You’ll quickly find that they come up with better ideas than those imposed on them.

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