How Adopting a Humble Mindset Can Make You a Better Leader
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No one has all the answers.
When I look around me and see the constant bustling of my team working hard, I remember that one of our biggest strengths is just that. We are a team.
In an industry that often praises charismatic founders for managing increasingly complex problems, I’m amazed that the rest of the hardworking employees who help grow a business are often left out of the equation. I make it a point to remind myself every day that not any single person has all the answers. What we create and collaborate on together is what makes us successful and allows us to arrive at solutions.
Related: 6 Steps to Becoming a Better Leader
English poet John Donne famously wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
Donne’s 400-year-old meditation argument against isolationism can also easily apply to leadership. We need humility in order to step back from ourselves and give others the room for their ideas to flourish.
The benefits of creating a positive culture
In a story for Harvard Business Review, author and professor of organizational behavior Dan Cable reminds us that:
“When you’re a leader — no matter how long you’ve been in your role or how hard the journey was to get there — you are merely overhead unless you’re bringing out the best in your employees. Unfortunately, many leaders lose sight of this.”
Many of us have grown up with a lopsided belief that humility is the same as being meek, that by viewing your employees as equals, you’re left at risk somehow. But think about it this way: Humility is about remaining grounded. It’s about taking up the right amount of space in your company and having the confidence to admit your mistakes while also recognizing people’s strengths.
“When leaders showcase their own personal growth, they legitimize the growth and learning of others,” write co-authors Jeanine Prime and Elizabeth Salib. “By admitting to their own imperfections, they make it OK for others to be fallible, too.”
Unsurprisingly, leaders who become overly obsessed with outcomes and treat their staff as a means to an end cause the team to lose steam. Whereas, showing humility as a founder or manager has been shown to promote greater innovation. This makes sense because a take-no-prisoners attitude only creates barriers. When you start a new business, it’s tricky to get this balance right because you can feel a sense of ownership and pride over your vision. It’s perfectly normal for entrepreneurs to become emotionally attached to a new venture as it’s often a labor of love.
But to be an effective leader and create a positive culture that nurtures people’s creativity, you have to loosen your hold and be willing to listen. According to Cable, we should adopt the humble mindset of a servant leader, which involves viewing our key role as “serving employees as they explore and grow” and “providing tangible and emotional support as they do so.”
I can say, as someone who has led a company for 13 years, that this is a work in progress. If anything, I have my team at JotForm to thank for many of the lessons I’ve learned since those early days. Here are some ways to model these types of servant-minded behaviors based on my daily experiences and research.
Ask for ideas and actually listen
Being a leader is a commitment to lifelong learning, and this involves communicating effectively to inspire your team. More than that, it means really taking the time to absorb what they tell you. At Jotform, I’ve installed weekly all-hands Friday afternoon demo days where team members can present projects and feel free to discuss their ideas.
But remember to not just nod along during these meetings; validate and verify by acknowledging what they’ve said, thanking them in return and summarizing the points they’ve brought up. By creating safe spaces like the demo days above, you’re creating an environment where employees feel empowered to share their feedback and voice their concerns.
Believe it or not, a great deal of your success depends on your team’s performance, which means your role is knowing when to step back and get out of the way. Nit-picking, showing impatience, constantly second-guessing everyone— all of these behaviors will ultimately compromise your company’s core mission.
The best leaders are people-focused and elevate those around them. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has made a point of bringing empathy to the company’s forefront. Since joining the business in 2014, he’s shifted the culture toward greater collaboration and inclusion. “Let’s not be know-it-alls,” he shares. “Let’s be ‘learn-it-alls.’”
There’s no doubt about it — being respected and valued is key for creating a positive work culture. This is what allows your team to come in each day and feel motivated to do their best.
A survey of more than 19,000 people by Harvard Business Review last year revealed that respondents reported feeling a lack of respect from their leaders. “No other leader behavior had a bigger effect on employees across the outcomes we measured,” wrote the survey’s co-author, Christine Porath.
“Being treated with respect was more important to employees than recognition and appreciation, communicating an inspiring vision, providing useful feedback — even opportunities for learning, growth and development.”
People want to feel seen, supported and validated. It’s clear, then, that building and maintaining relationships ultimately comes down to leading with respect. We do this by valuing each person’s ideas, listening and responding thoughtfully, but more importantly, by encouraging them to take up more space.
After all, we are only as great as the sum of our parts.