Development, Leadership, Learning, Organisations, Reflecting

The Power of Humble Leadership


The words I carried away from the recent CIPD Scotland conference were unexpected. Not “engagement” or “performance”, although these were ostensibly the topic areas being discussed; the words were: “humility” “humbleness” and “humanness”

The notion of “humble leadership” is one I kind of just love. For me, humble leaders work at being in service to those around them, yet still hold their power and purpose. There is strength in holding to a simple truth.
This stuff is about working with grace and dignity.
Saying what you believe to be true, even when it upsets… then sticking around to work with the upset it causes. (the very opposite of seagull management – swoop in noisily, shit on everything and swoop off.)
It’s about sticking with folk through the gnarly stuff.
Surrendering control, but not responsibility.
Admitting your mistakes and limits.

It’s not everyone’s cup of tea.
It takes great strength, enormous personal courage to put yourself and your outcomes in the hands of others. To trust. To conquer fear of failure.
Being “in Service” does not mean being servile or subservient.
At times, humbleness is mistaken for feebleness (the lyric in the Rhianna song: All of my kindness/ is taken for weakness) and I’ve seen Leaders who work with that quiet grace be overlooked or sort of dismissed by some Master of the Universe who believes that being domineering, controlling, needing to win all the time, putting yourself first is the best (or only) strategy to get stuff done…

For my money, if you want to get your staff through a major change – growth, reduction, re-structure, re-imagining – with out breaking or damaging them too much, those who work with humbleness, humility and humanity are the ones you want in place. They are less like to break people. That’s kind of important, in my book.


You can’t really codify or quantify how this quality will show up. At the CIPD Scotland conference, I saw a retired Brigadier on stage who would, at face value, seem to be Master of the Universe material, but who understood entirely his own limitations and who marvelled at what others brought. He was clear about how important HR professionals were to him – broadly at the point where three questions meet – is it right for the person? for the organisation? And is it legal? Here he needed help and guidance. So he asked for it and was thankful that it existed.

His transition from army to civilian had caused him pause. He had to re-evaluate and re-calibrate much about himself – and here was the humbleness – the admission of all of that, but the utter conviction that he was there to lead, to get stuff moving. He took his entire team with him to Australia to understand the project they were part of – from the admin assistant up – because no one was more important and everyone was important.

And he was bluff and posh and slightly Boris-like and some of the gender politics he espoused were all over the gaff, but somehow he was honest about that and he was trying to learn…. Humble leadership and quiet dignity doesn’t mean po-faced and stick-up-the butt serious, I realised.

And it showed up in the Chief HR Officer from RBS. Her story of working her way through the bank from Graduate to Senior Staff, her deep regard for the organisation and the people who work in it. Her determination to stay and make things better, rather than leave or coast. Her work to remember that there is such a thing as a “good banker” and that this is an important role. And the fights she fought personally to learn how to be “more commercial”. Her story was deeply human – the “devastation” felt on a Monday in 2008 when they realised the bank was, in essence, bust. And the knocks that kept coming – LIBOR and “bad banking” and PPI and…..

So what do you do? You admit that there has been hubris. You look at the grandiosity and the Bigger Better More mentality and you say: that’s what got us here, so what else? You don’t wail or finger point or get defensive or pretend it’s anything other than it is… you listen, you reflect, you work, you get on with it. You take your top 100 and you exit a third of them – and you work with care to do it, you try to make those exits dignified and help those people find their next steps with some kindness. You promote a third internally and you give them the tools to do their job as well as possible. You keep reminding them that this is about being a “good banker”. And you bring in new people well – onboard them with some care, encourage enthusiasm and a focus on who you are there to serve.
And you re-build relationships in your industry and you become and remain more humble. Not subservient or apologetic. But humble.

It is and it isn’t about you…it isn’t who you are, but how you are.

Humility, humbleness, humanness.
There is such power right here.

5 thoughts on “The Power of Humble Leadership”

  1. Excellent article – the goal of the people being able to say “We did it ourselves.” If I could keep only one book it would be Lao Tzu, but which translation? Thanks

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