Humility and the advancement of the executive career


Surprises in the development of an executive career

I’ve been thinking about the role of unexpected factors in the development of an executive career and the delivery of high quality leadership, and my thinking has been stimulated by the Space Shifters exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London. The exhibits – some of them arresting and surprising, all of them thought-provoking – acted as optical devices that enabled visitors to see their surroundings in new and unexpected ways.  See, for example, ‘Handrail’ by Monika Sosnowska , a red handrail which was entwined around the existing handrail, before straightening out and finally turning a corner on the wall before exuberantly becoming a ‘dance’ covering the whole wall.

Or Alicja Kwade’s ‘Weltlinie’ which used double-sided mirrors and carefully-placed objects to create sudden illusions and transformations.


Humility can be a surprising factor

While not as graphic, the realisation that humility can be a key factor in the advancement of executive careers can be just as surprising.

If you think about qualities that you associate with the advancement of an executive career, the chances are that you will come up with a list that includes vision, creativity, the capacity to inspire, passion, commitment, communication, confidence, empathy, integrity, courage, decisiveness……   Humility might not so readily have come to mind, and yet it is being increasingly mentioned as marking out exceptionally effective leaders.


Humility is key to extraordinary performance in an uncertain world

Humility: the capacity to recognise that you – how ever junior to me – offer something (a talent, a skill, an insight) that I don’t have, and that in that sense you are important to my success as a leader, and to our success as a team and as an organisation.  Indeed, I am dependent on you – no matter in how small a way – in the system that we are all part of.

William C Taylor, in his book ‘Simply Brilliant – How Great Organizations Do Ordinary Things In Extraordinary Ways’ (Portfolio Penguin, publ 2016, ISBN: 9780241009185), explores how exceptional performance is possible in all industries, and how transformation can take place in the most ordinary of circumstances if only leaders dare to reimagine what’s possible.  He comments: ‘In businesses (and social movements) built on new ideas, generating and evaluating ideas is everybody’s business. That’s why humility and ambition need not be at odds. Indeed, humility in the service of ambition is the most effective mindset for leaders who aspire to do big things in a world with huge unknowns.’


Organisations are starting to recruit for humility

What I recognise in the career advancement of leaders I work with is that in many organisations the notion of the heroic leader still reigns supreme, but in increasing numbers organisations are recognising the value of – and are recruiting for – talent that demonstrates the ability to be humble.

One of the brightest stars I’ve coached, with ambitions to have a global impact, was remarkable for his humility.  As he climbed the talent ladder, this quality enabled him to connect with people at the highest – and the lowest – levels, and to influence without ego and with impact.

Another highly-accomplished leader, with a career of achievements behind him in a number of fields, and who was on track for a very senior role in his multinational organisation, had the ability to bring out the best in all those around him through respect, connection and a readiness to learn from others.

Jeff Hyman, Professor at Kellogg School of Management and Chief Talent Officer at Strong Suit Executive Search, comments in his article published in Forbes magazine Why Humble Leaders Make The Best Leaders’, that a survey of 105 computer software and hardware firms published in the Journal of Management revealed that humility in CEOs led to higher-performing leadership teams, increased collaboration and cooperation and flexibility in developing strategies.


Assessing humility

Hyman asks: ‘When it’s time to make a hiring decision, how do you assess humility in a candidate?’ He answers:

Do they credit others?

Do they admit to mistakes – do they seek to understand what they did wrong and what they should change going forward?

Do they accept constructive feedback and admit to receiving criticism in previous jobs?

Do they strive to overcome their weaknesses?

Do they help others and help their reports to advance their careers?

He advises: ‘Search for quiet confidence, humility and a focus on others, [because] that’s where great leadership begins.’


Surprise and delight

Surprise and delight your clients in this way, and you will have taken an important step on your path to exceptional performance.


Photo by Kate Ter Haar via Compfight

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