Editor’s note: Thought leader Grace Ueng is CEO of Savvy Growth, a noted executive coaching and management consultancy. Grace writes a regular column on Happiness & Leadership for WRAL TechWire. Companies hire her firm for leadership coaching and strategy consulting as well as to  facilitate HappinessWorks™ programs, infusing the happiness advantage into corporate culture, leading to higher productivity and results.

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RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – All of us know the word “humble.”  And while there may be some disagreement on if this is a good trait, most of us would consider it a positive.  We may say that some people are too humble, when they are very accomplished, yet remain modest and grounded.

Different meanings to different people

There are, however, likely a wide variety of definitions of what humble exactly means.

Image courtesy of Grace Ueng

Our clients and I benefit from the wisdom of my partner, Rich Chleboski, who gave me his definition of a humble person:

“You do not possess false modesty,
rather you are open to what you don’t know
and what you do know.”

Humble Leaders draw People in

A study of more than 1,000 people showed that companies with humble people in leadership positions have a more engaged workforce and less employee turnover.  Employees are drawn to humble leaders. A leader is merely overhead if they are not inspiring and bringing out the best in their people.

The Humble Disguise

The most troubling situation is an egotistical, insecure leader disguised as a humble one. They talk often of humility’s importance, imply that they are humble, but then pay no heed to the ideas and past experiences of their direct reports, rather state all the reasons their ideas won’t work, all the while not realizing how condescending they come across. This leads to decreased employee confidence and increased turnover and burn-out.

“When you work for a leader that puts on the façade
of being humble, you often find that leader is manipulative
and not a team player. The most disruptive thing a non-humble leader does is communicate with a belittling and condescending tone.”

Truly Humble

While a student and then earlier in my career, I remember overpreparing when meeting “famous” people, being a bit in awe of their stature. I was always surprised in meeting these famous and accomplished people, just how humble and real they were.  I now realize that is a key to how they got to be where they are.  They are confident, they aren’t trying to prove anything.  Genuinely humble leaders are not hungry for power or attention, because they are self-confident and don’t need to boast about their work or how important they are. Instead, they are curious and want to learn more about you.
Let’s dig into the habits and characteristics of humble leaders.  I’m curious how you would grade yourself….

9 Traits of Humble People

You are confident and competent, and use these strengths to help others. To be humble is not to think less of yourself, rather it is to think of oneself less often. You are not a pushover and therefore do speak your mind, because being wrong is not a fear you have.

Your actions speak louder than your words.  You know that nobody cares about how much you know until they know how much you care.

You make difficult decisions with ease. Since you put others’ needs before your own, you base your decision making criteria off a shared sense of purpose rather than self-interest.

You are quick to listen and learn. You provide psychological safety (Project Aristotle at Google – the quest to define the perfect team) where everyone feels welcome to openly express their point of view and do not fear being shut down.  Rather than cutting people off to tell them why they are wrong and why you are right, you pause, listen, and encourage dialogue.  You actively listen rather than talking over people. Those who cut people off, eventually will have a team that loses its desire to collaborate.

In your team meetings, who does most of the talking?  The leader or their direct reports? The more comfortable the direct reports are made to feel in being open, the more they will discuss and collaborate, as they do not have the fear of being shut down.

You are curious to learn from others and from differing points of view and are open to changing your opinion in favor of others’ arguments.

You have strong emotional intelligence and self awareness. People do not talk about you behind your back, or if they do, it is with praise.  When others talk to you about others, you encourage them to speak to that person directly. You do not talk negatively about others behind their back.

How to create a fearless organization

In How to Create a Fearless Organization, I shared the culture of radical transparency that Ray Dalio adopted at Bridgewater which contributed to their global success. He operated under a rule that you could not talk about others unless they were also in the room, so they could learn from what is being said.  Those that talked about colleagues behind their back were referred to as “slimy weasels!” Bridgewater even has a transparency library where videos of every executive meeting are kept so that anyone in the company can see how issues and policies are discussed. When Dalio’s attorneys heard of this, they were aghast saying this would get them into all sorts of trouble.  The opposite actually occurred, having a culture of radical transparency kept people honest and open in the first place.

You provide tangible and emotional support to those who report directly to you, while encouraging them to try out their own ideas, giving them ownership and autonomy, rather than telling them what they are doing is wrong or worse yet, not listening to their past experiences informing their current point of view.

Instead of telling someone who works for you how to do their job better, you ask them what you can do to help them do their jobs better. Humble leaders  exude servant leadership.  You assume that they know best, rather than you. You respect their thinking and actions. That makes them more accountable, work harder, and more loyal.

You have high retention of relationships and therefore of your people. Research shows that humble people help others, more so than their prideful counterparts. As a result, they maintain stronger personal and professional  relationships.

You start sentences with “you” rather than “I.” Humble people brag about others.

You actively seek and accept feedback, and have a trained frontal lobe that dominates over the amygdala, so you are not immediately defensive when given constructive criticism.  Rather you seek to understand and figure out ways you can change. You will be open to enlisting help as you know that two can better solve than one alone. You give high regard to people’s suggestions and opinions.

You always take the time to say thank you.  I noticed how when the owner of a renowned establishment invited me to lunch, and even though we were having an in-depth conversation, she still took the time and effort to thank our server by her name.

When someone who reports to you summons the courage to provide constructive feedback, you pause and then first respond by saying, “Thank you.”

 Are you a truly humble leader or do you wear a humble disguise?  Or are you somewhere in between?  Most of us are.

Which of the 9 traits could you take a small step to improve this week to move toward being a truly humble leader?

About Grace Ueng

Grace is CEO of Savvy Growth, a leadership coaching and management consultancy founded in 2003. Her great passion to help leaders and the companies they run achieve their fullest potential combined with her empathy and ability to help leaders figure out their “why” are what clients value most.

Grace’s core offerings are one-on-one coaching for CEOs and their leadership teams, and conducting strategic reviews for companies at a critical juncture. A TED speaker, she is hired to facilitate workshops on Personal Branding and Speaking Success and lead HappinessWorks™programs for companies and campuses.

A marketing strategist, Grace held leadership roles at five high growth technology ventures that successfully exited through acquisition or IPO. She started her career at Bain & Company and then worked in brand management at Clorox and General Mills. She earned her undergraduate degree from MIT and MBA from Harvard Business School.

Grace and her partner, Rich Chleboski, accomplished cleantech veteran, develop and implement strategies to support the growth of impact-focused companies and then coach their leaders in carrying out their strategic plans. Their expertise spans all phases of the business from evaluation through growth and liquidity.