Strategy & LeadershipHumble leadership could help organizations weather the storm

Humble leadership could help organizations weather the storm

Whilst navigating through 2020's global crisis is a complex process, leadership will ultimately define how successful this process is. But this in itself is a vast landscape, so how can organisations achieve this? Matthew Syed Consulting outlines the process from start to finish.

The world today is almost unrecognizable compared to just a month or two ago. Never in modern times have we experienced a health crisis with such a widespread impact on human life, the economy and our day-to-day lives.

In this environment, leaders are facing extraordinary levels of challenge and demand. Many have had to rapidly change the way their organizations operate to ensure that they continue to function, as well as ensuring the welfare and wellbeing of employees.

The actions of leaders at all levels, whether in our own organizations or in the broader political sphere, will be critical to how well we weather this storm together.

In times of uncertainty, people are more likely to look to leaders for clear and unambiguous direction. These high expectations and high stakes can mean that leaders feel enormous pressure to have all of the answers and to appear infallible.

This approach, however, can be dangerous. It risks shutting out views and ideas from others who may be able to bring different perspectives and help develop better solutions. A ‘know-it-all’ leader risks making potentially catastrophic mistakes, resulting in backlash from employees, customers, or the public.

A traditional view of leadership is that it’s about using positional power, commanding others, and overseeing work to ensure desired outcomes are achieved. Information largely flows top-down.

This approach may work well where there is a well-trodden path to achieving outcomes. It works less well when problems are complex and there isn’t an established way forward. In these situations, leaders can benefit from taking a humble approach.

Being humble means recognizing that you can benefit from the input or expertise of others, no matter their seniority. Leaders who adopt a humble approach acknowledge their limitations, empower others, and act with the objectives of the wider team or organization in mind. This leadership style can unlock a number of positive outcomes.

A study of 1500 people found that humble leadership led to greater innovation (e.g. suggestions on how to improve work and product ideas), positive team behaviors (e.g. going beyond the call of duty and supporting colleagues), and employees feeling more included. These are behaviors and outcomes that are critical in the current environment.

As a leader, it is possible to provide clear direction, and yet also be humble and draw on the collective intelligence that exists within your team or organization. This approach will help to ensure that problems are viewed from multiple angles and that people pull together and are able to adapt and remain effective.

1. Be clear on your shared purpose

Ask yourself: What is our shared purpose? What are our guiding values? What are our objectives? Being clear on these points will help you and your team focus on what’s important, and form the foundation for moving forward. A shared purpose can unite and engage employees.

2. Communicate clearly and often

Communication is important even in normal circumstances. It is even more so in situations that are changing rapidly and with high levels of uncertainty. You may not be able to communicate a clear, long-range plan, but you can reaffirm your shared purpose, acknowledge current challenges, and outline how you’re trying to tackle those. This is also an opportunity to connect with people and draw on their insights.

3. Demonstrate humility – listen and take on feedback from others

The reality is that no individual can have all the answers in this completely new territory. As a team or organization, you have many people who can provide unique perspectives and insights into what is happening, what is working, what isn’t, and possible solutions. Ask for input and feedback from a wide range of people. Actively listen. Ideas and approaches developed by a diverse group with different perspectives and experiences will likely be more effective than a solution developed alone.

4. Build trust through your words and actions

Trust is fundamental to building positive relationships with others, and is a key part of whether others are willing to follow you as a leader. Leaders can build trust and commitment on two levels: i) on a rational level by communicating shared purpose and following through on personal commitments; ii) on an emotional level by demonstrating respect and empathy for employees, and acknowledging how their efforts contribute to the team and organization. Being transparent about decisions, and using fair processes, will also help employees accept even difficult decisions.

5. Experiment, learn and adapt

If you are clear on your purpose and objectives, empower employees to experiment with different ways to achieve these. Each experiment, whether successful or not, provides information that can help individuals and the organization learn and adapt. These can be small experiments that help individuals and teams be agile in the current environment.

  • What is the objective?
  • What are different ways that it could be achieved?
  • How could we change the way we work to enable this?
  • What did we do? What did we learn?
  • What could we do differently?
  • What if…?

Acknowledging that we may have some but not all of the answers opens us up to learning from others. This ultimately helps us to generate a better and more complete understanding of complex problems, and draw on the collective intelligence of the group to create more effective solutions. This approach to leadership may help navigating the storm that bit easier.

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