Leading with humility, be humble.


Humility is a virtue, an actionable value, a habit that puts the collective needs of others before the needs of oneself. The content of this blog is equally applicable for leaders within schools, teachers and students as leaders. As we will see the virtue of humility, encourages and facilitates habits of success that promotes leader, teacher and student learning.

Self-serving or self-sacrifice? Servant leadership starts with humility

‘Pride makes us artificial, and humility makes us real.’ Thomas Merton.

Those that are well versed at practicing humility tend to see their position of leadership differently. Humility seems to be countercultural in today’s society, where media seems to embrace and reward those that thrust themselves forward into the limelight, as individuals thriving on recognition and on seeking to be liked by the masses. As it is the antithesis of pride and entitled thinking, humility allows for the expression of kindness to occur. Indeed, leaders should be as St Paul wrote about Jesus’ servant leadership looking to emulate the following and ‘Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.’ Philippians 2:3-4. So, leaders need to be countercultural and be humble. As author Rico Tice writes in his book Faithful Leaders ‘Too often leaders have been harsh or arrogant or distant in their leadership. Not willing to listen to concerns and that has caused immeasurable pain to people. They have sent away those that told them what we did not like to hear.’ Leadership therefore should be directed by the interests of others. Don’t look to be served, but to serve.

Intellectual humility:

A successful leadership style is one of engaging others’ thinking, exercising intellectual humility, ultimately leveraging off the collective wisdom of others. This suggests that to be humble is to be open to new ideas and ways of knowing. Thus, humility involves the willingness to learn from others. Perspective taking is important as it reduces the likelihood of blind spots emerging and helps equip leaders to make informed judgements for decision making, because they have gained insights into the thinking of teachers and leaders. As a consequence, humility lets teams feel equally important and valued.

When hiring for a leadership role, you may be overlooking one of the most important traits of top performers: humility. Intellectual humility should be the number one attribute to look for when hiring teachers as it signals that they are open to continuous growth and learning.

So how do leaders set about cultivating humility?

  1. Don’t let your position of authority let you think you know more than those you lead.

Leaders who think they know more that those they lead deprive themselves of the collective wisdom and knowledge of the community. In addition, leaders who rely on a “power over” approach, suppress honest feedback and risk taking from those they lead. Humility is about appreciating something greater than oneself.

2. Humble leaders listen well.

True leadership shows itself in humble service. As Rico Tice writes ‘Listening requires being proactive: inviting those who we know are critical of us to have a conversation with us, in which we work hard to understand them and see if and (probably) where we need to change. We might not agree with everything they say, but we need to be humble and ready to listen and change. Those who are different from us can expose our casual assumptions and our complete blind spots. Those who are not our friends may well find it easier to speak to us, for they have less to lose if we respond badly. Never assume you know enough about someone or something or a particular situation without listening and listening hard first.’

3. Develop the habit of being honest about our mistakes.

Admitting and talking about our mistakes as leaders is an important component of relational transparency and helps build trust with those we lead. This act of humility helps us avoid overconfidence. When things go wrong, humble leaders admit to their mistakes and take responsibility.  A humble person not only admits to making mistakes; they seek to understand what they did wrong and what they should change going forward. Don’t be afraid to say the following: “I don’t know,” “I made a mistake,” “I am sorry” and “Please, forgive me.” Many leaders fear that their vulnerability will diminish their authority in the eyes of those they lead. In practice, people admire and emulate leaders who have the strength and courage to admit their mistakes and ask for help.  Leaders who are “human” promote greater ownership and responsibility from those they lead.

Further to this there are institutions cultivating acknowledging admitting when they are wrong.

Julia Rohrer a personality psychologist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, is trying to get her peers to publicly, willingly to admit it when they are wrong. It’s been fascinating to watch scientists struggle to make their institutions more humble. And I believe there’s an important and underappreciated virtue embedded in this process. I’ve come to appreciate what a crucial tool it is for learning, especially in an increasingly interconnected and complicated world. Social psychologists have learned that humility is associated with other valuable character traits: People who score higher on intellectual humility questionnaires are more open to hearing opposing views. They more readily seek out information that conflicts with their worldview. They pay more attention to evidence and have a stronger self-awareness when they answer a question incorrectly. Most important of all, the intellectually humble are more likely to admit it when they are wrong. When we admit we’re wrong, we can grow closer to the truth. We need more intellectual humility for two reasons. One is that our culture promotes and rewards overconfidence and arrogance. At the same time, when we are wrong — out of ignorance or error — and realize it, our culture doesn’t make it easy to admit it. The problem with arrogance is that the truth always catches up. Our ignorance is invisible to us and that is why it’s so hard to see our blind spots. To be intellectually humble doesn’t mean giving up on the ideas we love and believe in. It just means we need to be thoughtful in choosing our convictions, be open to adjusting them, seek out their flaws, and never stop being curious about why we believe what we believe. Again, that’s not easy.

4. Embrace uncertainty as certainty kills curiosity.

David Didau argues in his recent book Intelligent Accountability, that schools are incredibly complex institutions where it is impossible for school leaders to have certain knowledge of the best courses of action or the results of the decisions they make. This being the case, Didau suggests that the only reasonable alternative is to act with tentativity and humility. Leaders need to accept that certainty is likely to lead to poor decision making. When we’re certain we stop thinking. After all, why would we continue to think about a problem when we’re already sure we know the answer? This tends to result in seeing whatever we want to expect to see and failing to notice new or surprising opportunities. Embracing uncertainty doesn’t mean you should endlessly prevaricate, instead it means accepting that decisions are always imperfect, made with incomplete understanding and should be subject to change when additional information comes along. An effective school leader will seek out sources of collective intelligence. In order to allow those around you to give their opinions honestly, you must encourage professional scepticism. This is a mindset which is willing to accept new ideas but will always be prepared to ask critical, searching questions. All too often, the prevailing culture in schools is one which discourages this kind of professionalism, but the rewards of allowing others to pose hard questions and point out potential mistakes is that you’re far less likely to go too far astray. With these thoughts in mind, your department, school or trust is perhaps ready to explore what it means to operate a surplus model of school improvement. Therefore, with humility comes wisdom.

Matthew Evans sums up the dangers succinctly in his blog ‘We readily fall into certainty as we are primed to do so. And yet, holding on to doubt – pushing ourselves to countenance the notion that we probably do not know all of importance there is to know – may make our actions more cautious and wise. Certainty feels good, but resisting its emotional pull may be prudent as we probably don’t have the full story.’

5. When chairing or participating in meetings or when having conversations with individuals embrace the gift of constructive conflict.

Humility promotes different viewpoints and therefore eventuates in better decisions as leaders open themselves to learning as they seek the truth. As Viviane Robinson writes in her superb book Reduce Change To Increase Improvement ‘the key is to listen carefully and value the pushback rather than to downplay it or explain it away.’ Leaders will gain the best outcomes when they foster the trust which allows constructive conflict.

6. Learn from the All Blacks rugby team who have the most successful winning percentage of any professional sporting team over time.

The All Blacks have a culture that governs that no one is better than the team and the team always comes first. This other centred culture is expressed as the players sweep the sheds going by their mantra espoused in James Kerr’s excellent book Legacy, of never being too big to do the small things that need to be done. Before leaving the dressing room at the end of the game, all the players stop and tidy up. They literally and figuratively ‘sweep the sheds’ an example of personal humility, a cardinal All Blacks value. As the book promotes “many of us are more capable than some of us, but none of us is as capable as all of us.”

7. Humility is inclusive and our choice of pronouns demonstrates this:

As Timothy Wright ex Headmaster of SHORE school in Sydney, recently shared on LinkedIn ‘When we communicate with our people what is the message about success we send by our choice of pronoun. The CEO or executive whose speech or written communications is littered with ‘I’ or ‘me’ and points to ‘their’ ideas is sending the message they see themselves as the source of success. On the other hand when we choose to say ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘our’ we communicate the high value we place on the team and how we value the contributions of colleagues. As Jim Collins wrote all those years ago, great leaders are fiercely focused and consistently humble.’

Here are a set of questions to ask of ourselves as leaders?

Will your leadership be marked by self-seeking or self-sacrifice?

Am I leading in service of my team?

Am I an empathetic leader?

Do I credit others?

Do I admit to mistakes?

Do I accept constructive feedback?

How well am I listening?

Am I actively inviting those who I know have a different perspective from me or even would be critical of me, to share their insights and concerns with me?

Is there any part of leadership that I need to approach differently (or even lay down for a while) in order to cultivate a more servant hearted attitude?

And, as ultimately, we need a balance between convictions and humility, How do you maintain an open mind toward others and yet, at the same time, keep your strong moral convictions?

Can humility be mistaken for indecisiveness? Can humility be a ‘decision stopper’ because we are trying to please everyone?

No, in its very essence, being a humble leader recognises the strength of constructive conversations, asking hard questions and researching what’s best for our students and staff. Being a humble leader at its core requires the leader to put themselves second, to make sometimes difficult decisions and be confident in those. Being a humble leader ensures the process of leadership and decision making has been thorough, it has asked the right questions and has included others’ opinions. Being a humble decision maker, recognises one must lean on others experiences and knowledge, and use them to help the process be successful. Being humble results in stronger more informed decision making and equips leaders to deal with complex challenges because they have invested in increasing relevant bodies of knowledge.

There is a book dedicated to investigating the virtue of humility, that I would recommend and drew inspiration from for this blog, and it is titled Humilitas by John Dickson.

The virtue of humility, encourages and facilitates habits of success that promotes leaders, teachers and students learning. Indeed, strong inclusive leadership requires intellectual humility by suspending one’s ego and considering others’ views as this often leads to new knowledge and methods. Opening yourself up to the vulnerability of being wrong, receiving correction and asking others how they think you could do better. Humility piques curiosity, invites community, unleashes learning, builds trust, maximises other people’s potential and can inspire teams to great heights. Humility applied to convictions does not mean believing things any less; it means treating those who hold contrary beliefs with respect and friendship. There is something deeply attractive about seeing someone who is genuinely, authentically putting others’ interests before theirs. Our attitude towards leadership will always show itself in the way we treat those who can do little for us. As they say, you can tell a great deal about a person by whether they notice and speak to the least important person in the room. It is important therefore to recognize that leaders who are humble give those they lead the gift and freedom to grow into their true selves and to be fully human. In view of this, it could be meaningful in the context of schools to consider the inclusion of humility as a leadership concept in the development of school leadership programs.

About robmarchetto

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