How to Be a Humble Leader

In mid-first century, the Roman philosopher Seneca wrote a series of letters to a procurator of Sicily, wherein he outlined a number of tenets of the Stoic philosophy. These letters are relevant still because of their earnest approach to leading a more fulfilling life. Seneca's observations are just as applicable in the modern realm of business leadership as they were over two thousand years ago. "Associate with those who will make a better man of you," Seneca writes in one letter. "Welcome those whom you yourself can improve. The process is mutual; for men learn while they teach."

Lesson From a Stoic

The essence of this letter is the idea of humility, of knowing not only the value of your position within an organization, but also acknowledging the path taken to reach that position and the support of the rest of the organization that facilitates your own and the business's success. Every business entity is structured so that many individuals can work in a coherent and directed fashion toward a unified goal, regardless of a single individual's talents, strengths and business intelligence. In this environment, a bi-lateral exchange of information, ideas and opinions helps the business operate smoothly and effectively.

In a recent study done by Catalyst Inc. regarding inclusion across companies in six countries, data showed that success within a business group is a function of four qualities of these executive teams. Among those qualities was humility -- the ability for executives to acknowledge their own shortcomings and lack of understanding in a given situation and to seek input from others within the organization.

There's Always Another Lesson

As the marketplace becomes increasingly global, with all kinds of new opportunities and new hurdles to clear, a successful business must learn how to adapt. It must learn how to adjust its model for new paradigms, new regulations, and new cultural and social idiosyncrasies that will influence its ability to interact with customers. Businesses must learn to use new technology and new methodologies that will improve productivity and cost-effectiveness. All these elements shape and re-shape a business, and within that business, individuals -- from the person just hired in the mail room, to the senior executive in the corner office -- must also reconsider their roles within the organization.

As employees and organizations continue to change, those employees are constantly repositioned within the organization to roles where they will be most effective. But this efficiency is only realized if these individuals are communicating well with those above and below them. As Catalyst's study shows, effective communication is directly related to how much each individual feels like they are included in the organization. A true sense of belonging is one of the most critical aspects of employee happiness and effectiveness within an organization, and it is in inclusive environments where everyone feels like they are part of a team. Leadership tempered with humility breaks down barriers to keep a team coherent.

From Humble Beginnings

As you rise within an organization, do not lose sight of the importance of the people beneath you. Each individual performs a critical task, which allows other teams to perform effectively. Strong leadership creates an organization that is moving in sync, and when all the individual components work harmoniously, the end result is always better. Humility in leadership increases the sense of individual ownership within the organization, and when employees feel like their contribution is valued -- when what they do makes a difference -- they are going to strive to excel.

Seneca once said, "The process is mutual." And while he was referring to the process of teaching and being taught, that statement is true for all interactions within an organizational structure. Everyone learns from everyone else. Every step forward is a step taken in tandem. Everyone succeeds or fails together. This belief is what creates an inclusive, cohesive and creative work environment that thrives under strong, humble leadership.

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Sources:

Book Notes: Letters from a Stoic by Seneca

Harvard Business Review: The Best Leaders Are Humble Leaders

Catalyst: Inclusive Leadership: The View From Six Countries

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