How Humble Leadership Really Works

Certain forms of top-down leadership are outdated and more importantly, counterproductive.

When you’re a leader, you are merely overhead unless you’re bringing out the best in your employees. Unfortunately, many leaders lose sight of this reality.

Power can cause leaders to become overly obsessed with outcomes and control and therefore, treat their employees as means to an end.

As I’ve discovered in my own research, this ramps up people’s fear – fear of not hitting targets, fear of losing bonuses, fear of failing – and as a consequence people stop feeling positive emotions, and their drive to experiment and learn is stifled.

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Servant leaders have the humility to admit they can benefit from the expertise of others with less power.

This type of top-down leadership is outdated and more importantly, counterproductive.

By focusing too much on control and end goals and not enough on their people, leaders are making it more difficult to achieve their own desired outcomes.

A servant mindset 

The key, then, is to help people feel purposeful, motivated and energized so they can bring their best selves to work.

There are a number of ways to do this. But one of the best ways is to adopt the humble mindset of a servant leader. Servant leaders view their key role as serving employees as they explore and grow, providing tangible and emotional support as they do so.

To put it bluntly, servant leaders have the humility, courage and insight to admit they can benefit from the expertise of others who have less power than them. They actively seek the ideas and unique contributions of the employees they serve.

Servant leadership emphasizes that the responsibility of a leader is to increase the ownership, autonomy and responsibility of followers – to encourage them to think for themselves and try out their own ideas.

Here’s how to do it.

Ask how you can help employees do their own jobs better – then listen.

Rather than telling employees how to do their jobs better, start by asking them how you can help them do their jobs better.

What it comes down to is this: Employees who do the actual work of your organization often know better than you how to do a great job. Respecting their ideas and encouraging them to try new approaches to improve work encourages employees to bring more of themselves to work.

Create low-risk spaces for employees to think of new ideas.

Sometimes the best way for leaders to serve employees – and their organization – is to create a low-risk space for employees to experiment with their ideas. By doing so, leaders encourage employees to push on the boundaries of what they already know.

Be humble.

Leaders often do not see the true value of their charges, especially “lower-level” workers.

But when leaders are humble, show respect and ask how they can serve employees as they improve the organization, the outcomes can be outstanding.

And perhaps even more important than better company results, servant leaders get to act like better human beings.

This article originally appeared on Harvard Business Review and was republished with permission.

[Top Photo: Bauhaus1000/Getty Images]

Dan Cable is Professor of Organizational Behavior at London Business School.

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