Effective Leadership- Got Humility?

Effective leadership is about people- always. Without the faith of your followers, a leader you are not.

If you fail to honor your people,

They will fail to honor you;

It is said of a good leader that

When the work is done, the aim fulfilled,

The people will say, “We did this ourselves.

Lao Tzu, , 604-531 B. C., Founder of Taoism, Tao Te Ching

I can't think of a simpler concept in leadership, or one that would be considered more practical and authentic. In the measured contexts of our everyday lives as leaders, all teachers, whether they like it or not, are called upon to serve; primarily our students, but also each other, our student's parents and the learning community we are an integral part of. In humbly putting the needs of others ahead of our own as leaders, we honor them. The appreciation we receive as a result pays dividends as our followers are empowered to feel strong and supported in their important work. I strive as a leader to let good people do their work with my full endorsement, intervening only when they seek my assistance.

A former superintendent in my district said once that as a leader, you stand in front when things need defending and in back when they need celebrating… servant leadership in a nutshell. Servant leadership requires a good dose of humility to be effective, and the humility of great leaders resonates with people and inspires them to also be humble and supportive in their own leadership; to do whatever it takes to push others upward and hold them in high regard… to choose to see what's right with people.

Ben and Rosamund-Beth Zander refer to it as “giving people an A” in their book, “The Art of Possibility;” a game changer for me professionally and personally. The authors emphasize that, “giving an A is a fundamental, paradigmatic shift toward the realization that all is invented.” Alas, all is invented. The lens we look through is ours alone, and it affects the way we see every other person, and every interaction we have with them. We don't even have to know what others perspectives are to initiate an open and collaborative exchange with them; we just have to know that they all have one, and most importantly, be willing to listen to it.

The humble leader thinks deeply about perspective and how it affects the equilibrium of interdependency critical to success within any functional relationship. We have to truly listen to our followers; put aside our bias and personal perspectives to consider that there may be other ways, perhaps better ways to move our organizations forward productively and positively. The Zander's understand that,

when we give people an A we can be open to a perspective different from our own, For after all, it is only to a person to whom you have granted an A that you will truly listen, and it is in that rare instance when you have ears for another person that you can truly appreciate a fresh point of view.

Even the most cynical among us are susceptible to this approach. Ben Zander explains a paradoxical element to giving people an A when he says that “a cynic, after all, is a passionate person who does not want to be disappointed again.” So let's not disappoint our people; let's give them all an A and strive, as the Zander's suggest, to speak to their passion, not their cynicism.

To a person, everyone of us has been shaped and formed by the variables of time and experience, and as a result we have our own personal reality tunnels; those perspectives that guide our judgments, our actions and our relationships. Humble leaders understand this, and even more importantly they understand that the private logic within all of us will affect the dynamics of every interpersonal relationship we are challenged by.



  1. Sean, you highlight a very important team / leadership concept, particularly in light of the fact that hero leadership is so pervasive. To be a great hero, I’d guess it’s important to exude heroic qualities. Until hero status is established, that would probably mean going lite on humility! However, when we’re focusing on distributing team leadership, Lao Tzu’s advice is indeed timeless.

    I’d like to share an insight or two from my recent doctoral research into distributing team leadership which shows how it is possible to be humble and inspiring – the latter and oft cited justification for being heroic. The grounded theory research asked the question, “How do followers exercise leadership?”. Eight influencing behaviours emerged, one of which was ‘anchoring’ – a term coined by one of my study’s informants (so all credit to them). The anchoring influencing behaviour is demonstrated by 100% commitment to the team goals, the team and members within the team – a huge ask which involves selfless (servant leadership style) execution.

    My study found that there may be one person in a team who fits this bills, and rarely more, but it wasn’t uncommon for teams not to have anyone doing this at all – and those teams were definitely poorer for it. I categorised anchoring as a ‘situational’ (rather than core or key) influencing behaviour. Teams won’t dissolve without it but, when it’s exercised, they definitely reap rewards.

    Perhaps the most important insight I gained from my informants in relation to the topic under discussion was that anchoring behaviour is a major trigger for inspiration in others. We often read about inspiring as a leadership behaviour but there seems to be a paucity of discussion on antecedents of inspiration, other than ‘this is what heroes (or charismatics) do’!

    My informants helped me reached the conclusion that leaders can’t actually ‘do’ inspiration in the same way as one does listening or does coordinating etc. While one ‘does’ motivating (another of the 8 influencing behaviours) to others by exercising the motivating behaviour, a leader exercises anchoring which then often evokes a sense of feeling inspired in others. The type of humilty, service, connection etc. that those people who are exercising anchoring show leads others to want to emulate at least some of the commitment and thus contribute more to the team. Inspiration is an unintended (and most valuable) by-product of anchoring, but not its orginal purpose.

    Humility is a key attribute of people exercising this behaviour. The act of anchoring is itself a humble expresssion of commitment, not an act aimed at inspiring others. In a way though, it’s just reward for a selfless act of leadership, where even those rewards are shared by many more than just the leader.

    Inspiration is of direct benefit to the individual who is inspired and also the team which enjoys contributions from the inspired member. The person doing the anchoring is often further humbled when they discover the impact that their selfless behaviour is having on others. Consequently, they are motivated to increase their team contributions through their own enhanced sense of making a valued contribution to the team (the contributing-belonging cycle is another powerful, and totally unexpected outcome of the research).

    If you’re interested, you can find more on the eight influencing behaviours and insights about the contributing-belonging cycle team mechanism that emerged in the newsletter archive of our website – http://www.ugmconsulting.com .

    September 29, 2010
  2. cinwellpac said:

    “To be a great hero, I’d guess it’s important to exude heroic qualities. Until hero status is established, that would probably mean going lite on humility! However, when we’re focusing on distributing team leadership, Lao Tzu’s advice is indeed timeless.”
    Where I have been able to read about this?

    December 14, 2010

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