Humility and Leadership
Twenty-eight years ago I started a nonprofit organization called the National Center for Employee Ownership. My desire to do this grew largely out of my belief that treating people well at work by rewarding them with an ownership stake and honoring the ideas they could contribute would create workplaces that were both more fair and productive.
As we grew, and I was leading our own organization, I came to realize that many of the ideas I had about how we should do things were not as good as those of other people on the staff. It was a humbling revelation. I wasn’t fully practicing what I was preaching. So I worked hard to change, to listen to what people said, to make decisions as a group, and to let people do things even when I disagreed. From that point forward, we became a much more effective organization. Turnover, always a problem, became a rarity. People liked their jobs much better—and so did I. It became a daily pleasure to come to work with colleagues, not employees. In other words, I learned that to be a good leader, I needed to be a humble leader.
Humility in leadership is in short supply these days. Not so very long ago, CEOs of major financial companies were being lionized as geniuses worth princely sums. Skeptics of their increasingly risky strategies were largely ignored. We entered Iraq with absolute certainty that the post-invasion task would be relatively simple. Non-governmental experts who suggested that history showed occupation was a tricky and risky business were excoriated as unpatriotic and ill-informed. Talk show hosts on the left or right provide their multitudinous rants with absolute certainty they are right and the other side are idiots.
It’s high time that our leaders—and all of us who listen to and follow them—take a deep, breath and expel our pious certainties. The world is a very unpredictable, uncertain place. The only thing we can know for sure is just how uncertain our knowledge is. Lacking this essential humility, we inevitably fail to listen to the other ideas and opposing views that can better ground our actions in reality and open up the possibility of hearing new ideas that may be better. Those with other views are increasingly isolated, unable to penetrate the bubble of camp-followers heaping praise on their leaders. Facts and ideas contrary to the leaders’ beliefs not viewed kindly, making us increasingly cynical citizens and employees.
A great leader is one who is truly open to competing ideas and thus encourages a true marketplace for them. You can’t do that unless people around you genuinely believe that you are approaching them with humility. It is only when leaders really believe that they do not always have the best insights that can they create organizations that generate the best ideas.
Corey Rosen is the founder and executive director of the National Center for Employee Ownership, a nonprofit information and membership organization focusing on broad-based employee ownership.