Open Leadership: You Might Be Wrong

Open leadership is the next great thing. Charlene Yi, in the Winter 2012 issue of Rotman Magazine defines open leadership as:

…having the confidence and humility to give up the need to be in control, while inspiring commitment from people to accomplish goals. (p. 22)

Which is all well and good. I’ve posted a lot in this blog about the concept of humility in leadership and our need to develop more humility in our approach to leadership.

That said, there are some limitations to the current discussion of humility. First, our preconceived ideas (or implicit theories) of leaders rarely include the idea of humility. In fact we expect our leaders to be highly confident, to not flip-flop, to have firm notions of the way the world works.  Humility is not often the road to power, influence and leadership roles. So most leaders don’t have a lot of practice in humility.

Second, humility is one of those traits that we all think we possess. Everyone says, “humble? of course I’m humble”. Most of us too, do not think of ourselves as arrogant or narcissistic, even when we are.

So it is all well and fine to preach humility, but in the end, most people ignore the lecture. Why? If you already think you are humble, a discussion of humility feels a bit irrelevant, non? (Which I suppose is an expression of arrogance in itself, “I’m already humble, so I have nothing to learn about humility”).

As a result, we know very little about humility. Although some preliminary research suggests that it might be an important factor in leadership, it is not clear at all what it is, in what circumstances it is effective, where it is ineffective, how to use it, and how to develop it.

Don’t get me wrong.  I firmly believe that humility is an important factor in leadership. Used properly, I believe that it builds leader credibility. Used improperly it can destroy follower trust.

But bland prescriptions to “be humble” really don’t help leaders and followers to be effective. How often do you ask yourself, could I be wrong here? How often do you admit your fallibility to your followers? friends? family? There’s a great quote from the movie the Blind Side:

Leigh Ann Tuohy: (to her husband)  “You’re right”

Sean Tuohy: “Excuse me? ‘You’re right’? How’d those words taste coming out of your mouth?”

Leigh Ann Tuohy: “Like vinegar”.

I’d like to believe that humility needs to be like wine and honey, not like vinegar. Now all I need to do is learn how to be humble.


4 replies »

  1. Ha. Reminds me of a little country ditty I heard some time ago:

    Lord it’s hard to be humble
    When you’re perfect in every way
    I can’t wait to look in a mirror
    ‘Cause I get better lookin’ each day
    To know me is to love me
    I must be a helluva man
    Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble
    But I’m doin’ the best that I can

    No doubt about it. There’s a leadership paradox around humility. Too much or too little and you fail. But if you were going to err on the side of caution, the North American model of success (based on anecdotal evidence – I don’t have anything empirical to support this) suggests less humility is better than more. There seem to be more Gordon Gekko’s than there are Ghandi’s out there. Such a shame.

  2. I am reading Howard Thurman’s Disciplines of the Spirit today…Your blog was excellent … after reading it I read a great chapter in the book that speaks to your subject …. here is one snippit… “Never to be forgotten is the fact that the real possibility of failure, deriving from the constant threat of error, is one of the real challenges of growth. To guard against this and be prepared to deal with it when it occurs is an authentic discipline of the spirit.” Thurman – 58

    • Self awareness is the key to growth. Understanding that no matter how smart, accomplished or good we are at something, we can still be wrong is part of gaining wisdom. P.S. Like the cartoon?

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