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.