When you think of a successful leader who springs to mind? Mahatma Gandhi? Nelson Mandela? Or Barrack Obama perhaps?
And what are the traits you most associate with those people? Resilience? Charisma? The ability to bounce back from failure and bring people along with them?
I’ve written before about listening as an under-rated leadership skill, but during my work coaching leaders from the Indian Administration Service (IAS)at the University of Cambridge, another critical leadership skill is in evidence time and again – humility.
The people I coach from the IAS are leaders, often responsible for the administration of geographical areas populated by millions of people. Their organisation is undergoing rapid change under Modi’s relatively new government which is determined to sweep away old inconsistencies and remove corruption and unnecessary bureaucracy.
These leaders take incredibly important decisions day in, day out. The decisions directly impact on the lives of millions of people who live in the areas they oversee – and yet so many of these leaders are humble, believing their role is to serve the people.
As part of the coaching process I use 360-degree feedback. It’s a tool which allows everyone to provide feedback to a leader, including the people they report to and the people they manage. And when I use it with the IAS leaders, humility comes out time and time again. Consistently their teams love working with them, have incredibly high respect for them, and talk of feeling valued.
This ability to have such a strong leadership impact is imperative within the IAS as these leaders are moved around every couple of years. This means they have to quickly establish themselves, their capability, and build rapport to get a new team working effectively for them. Their humility means they develop a reputation not for succeeding at all costs, but for succeeding and crediting their team with the success.
Typically these leaders talk in the plural – about we, not I.
In his seminal book on leadership, From values to action – the four principles of values-based leadership, Harry M. Kraemer writes about genuine humility as “recognising the value of everyone and knowing you are no better than anyone else”. The managers in the IAS certainly embody this.
Having genuine humility means you place the emphasis on doing what is right to make a positive impact, not on plotting how to rise. It’s staying grounded. It’s adding value to your team by making sure they know they are appreciated. It’s about acknowledging others’ talents and the achievements of the collective.
Simon Sinek says: “Great leaders don’t need to act tough. Their confidence and humility serve to underscore their toughness.” I think that’s a fine way to lead.