The Case for Humble Leadership

It’s easy when you’ve reached the level of CEO, or high-level executive, to feel you’re a guru. You might feel that now, from your high perch, you can bestow your wisdom on the little people who work beneath you—you will be so generous as to recognize the contributions of all those in smaller roles beneath you. The question is: Should you think of anyone at the company as working beneath you?

I’ve found in my relatively short career of 15 years that believing you have nothing left to learn, and especially not from those at lower levels than you at the company, is a dire mistake. Not all executives get punished by the organization for having such arrogance, but they often are punished by a company that doesn’t perform as well as it would with a different corporate philosophy. Culture begins with the message and tone sent by the leadership team. If the top executives send the message that they are there to help others learn, but don’t believe younger, less experienced employees also can teach them, the rest of the workforce will take a cue, and act the same.

It was refreshing to read last month in The New York Times Corner Office column about an executive who likes to make it clear that he, like everyone else, has a lot to learn. Todd Rovak, CEO of Capgemini Consulting North America and of Fahrenheit 212, an innovation consultancy, told the Times’ Adam Bryant that he is careful to let employees know he’s trying, and failing, alongside them. He seems to take a proactive approach to sending a message that he is not above them, teaching lessons from on high. “The biggest way to fail is to say, ‘I’ve got this completely figured out.’ I prefer to be credible and say: ‘We are all on a journey. And we have a strategy. And this is what we don’t know about the path from here to there. But here’s where we’re going and why,’” Rovak tells Bryant. “And so it stops being about my vision, and starts being our journey. And people will pull for a journey. The biggest myth is that in order to be a leader you have to have all the answers.”

How can executives be taught that they not only are teachers, but students, of those who work “under” them at the company? One way is for Learning professionals to propose a system in which each top-level executive has one meeting per month with either entry- or mid-level employees. It could alternate, one month a meeting with a dozen entry-level employees, and the next month a meeting with mid-level employees. The employees would have a learning and reflection task of their own. You could ask participants to each prepare one observation of a characteristic, or habit, of the company that is working well, and one that isn’t. They also could be asked to come up with one idea for improvement. If the executive ends up adopting an employee’s idea, that employee could be made part of the team implementing the resulting plan. It would be an exercise that gets employees thinking about how to better their company, an opportunity for advancement, and a help to executives to be given a tutorial by those executing the plans they put in place.

With work groups scaled back, so that many employees work in groups as small as two or three, leader participation in the day-to-day work is essential. There is less opportunity in today’s leaner workforces for leaders at any level to just be “top of the trees” or “big picture” people. When a system has been put in place for executives to meet and learn from those at lower levels in the company, and when those at lower levels with winning ideas are asked to be a part of the leadership team in implementing those ideas, an important message is sent. Leaders at other levels of the company, such as mid-level or lower-level executives, realize that they, too, are expected to learn from those they manage.

I’ve been part of a work group with just two people, one of whom is the manager, and that manager, even with just the two of us, refuses to be trained in the day-to-day tasks that keep our business unit operating. From a philosophical standpoint, that’s an unhealthy attitude, but from a practical standpoint, it’s also dangerous. Along with the importance of setting a positive corporate culture, smaller work groups mean that if managers don’t know how to do the work their employees are doing, the company is at risk of falling through on its products and commitment to customers.

Should an addition also be made to manager performance reviews? If you don’t already do so, would it be a good idea to have a section in which the manager writes a few paragraphs about what her employees have taught her over the last year? Like other parts of the performance review, the manager each year would set goals for learning particular things from the team she manages, and would report back a year later whether she learned the things she wanted to learn from her team. And if she didn’t learn those things, she would detail what she learned instead from them. It would be OK to end up learning different lessons than you thought you would from them, but one thing that would not be acceptable would be to learn nothing.

Do you think it’s important for your top executives, and managers throughout your company, to learn from those who work at lower levels at the company? What systems, or programs, do you have in place to facilitate employee-to-manager learning?

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