Can You Train Managers to Be Humble?

The manager who is unable to express uncertainty or ignorance, let alone the admission of a mistake, is well known to me. I’ve been experiencing such a situation for a while. Is it also a common management type you’ve come across?

A recent Corner Office column in The New York Times featured a Q&A with Chamath Palihapitiya, chief executive of venture capital firm Social Capital, in which Palihapitiya notes the role humility plays in his leadership style: “…I am pretty introspective and humble enough to constantly change my mind, like both my father and my mother. Those traits can be really productive together, but if they’re not well balanced, they can be unproductive. So my constant challenge is to surround myself with people who have the nerve to stand up to me and argue.”

I was heartened to hear a leader—and a leader of a venture capital firm, no less—talk about introspection and humility. Those are two qualities that are important to me, but ones I often find lacking in leaders, both in business and elsewhere.

I still remember a visit I made years ago to a large financial institution for an article I was writing for Training. Working on a profile, I was invited into a conference room with at least half a dozen executives. Rather than a lively conversation sprinkled with “Oh, I didn’t know that” and “We might also do it this way” moments, I sensed a fearfulness that made the executives feel they needed to parrot what the leader of their group said. They were what we in school used to call “brown-nosers.” They were too afraid of their own shadows to offer novel ideas or express an honest lack of knowledge or indecision.

How do you create management and leadership training that encourages the asking of questions and the raising of new ideas, rather than the reflection of whatever the department or company head says? It takes humility, and courage to admit you don’t know something and to admit you’re not sure what you want to do, or that the course you’ve been on may not be the best one going forward.

The change in culture that creates managers who are more interested in getting things done than in posturing and over-compensating for insecurities begins at the top in the chief executive you choose. Do you think Learning professionals should have a role in helping to choose a CEO?

I can envision a system in which the board of directors works with the Learning department, not just Human Resources, to discuss the leadership qualities most important to the company, and how to evaluate whether candidates for the company’s leader have those qualities. Does that already happen at your company? I’ve heard of Human Resources working to find new executives, but I have never heard of a company’s Learning team getting involved in the process. What I usually hear is a board of directors deciding on their own, after finding and interviewing candidates, who the next company leader will be. The problem is board members usually don’t have a background in learning or psychology, so they are not necessarily the best judges of personalities and leadership styles.

When selecting a new company leader, is the only important criteria that the last company the person headed made money? I would say it’s more complicated than that because if the person’s leadership style doesn’t complement your culture, it could be counterproductive—even if it worked well at another company.

I’ve noticed that the people who rise to the top are often the most aggressive and boastful, and most likely to surround themselves with sycophants. How do you encourage the equally, if not more, talented executives, who are more humble and sincere, to move into leadership roles?

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