We live in a world of unlimited connection. Unprecedented access to people, places, and ideas can be both exhilarating and exhausting. Even twenty years ago, only a close group of friends, family, and colleagues knew the inner workings of our lives. Today, our lives can be known to all. This creates a growing pressure to present our best selves to the world. While the desire to create a good impression predates the rise of the internet, now the instinct is turbocharged. We must constantly navigate how to present ourselves in a positive light. This evolution has led to a glut of curated content and behavior that can appear more performative than sincere. More and more, authenticity seems rare, making it all the more valuable. Although there are endless opportunities to connect, meaningful connections are in short supply.
Not surprisingly, recent studies show that self-aware, authentic, and vulnerable leadership is in higher demand than ever before. Increasingly, amidst the noise of the information age, people want leaders who can forge deeper connections, listen, and learn. Employees are less drawn to a veneer of perfection; they want leaders to be their partners in growth. To become this type of leader, you must first embrace the core principle of humility: Humility is the key to building authentic leadership connection in an ever-changing world.
The Case for Humility: A Powerful Tool for Authentic Leadership Connection
Many thinkers, researchers, and leaders have opined about the power of humility. Confucius taught that “humility is the solid foundation of all virtues.” Leadership expert Jim Collins, in his famous five-year research project, found that the most transformative leaders possess the twin competencies of “humility and fierce resolve.” ConantLeadership Founder Doug Conant explains in his leadership treatise, The Blueprint:6 Practical Steps to Lift Your Leadership to New Heights: “The best leaders are expert connectors and listeners,” and, “humility is the virtue that binds these two competencies.” And executive advisor, Liz Wiseman, says humility can be seen as a “multiplier,” a skill that enhances your leadership abilities by making the work less about you as the leader, and more about the people and the desired outcomes.
Experts agree that leadership humility helps teams break down walls, stymy competitiveness, connect in real ways, and build trust. A recent study found that employees with leaders who practiced humility by listening and implementing feedback were 12 times more likely to recommend their organization as a great place to work. Allowing people to see us fully—rather than just as curated snippets—helps create psychological safety which increases effectiveness, collaboration, and workplace satisfaction. And contrary to popular belief, operating with humility doesn’t mean that you need to be weak, self-deprecating, or timid. In fact, the same studies showing that humble, authentic leaders are in high demand also found equal demand for driven, visionary leaders who follow through. Humility is not a case of “either/or,” it’s a case of “both/and.”
Yet despite the mountain of evidence supporting the power of humility, many leaders still struggle with the concept. The old leadership paradigm was to project strength and to appear to have all the answers; this may have worked before the information age, but in today’s world, people are savvy and hungry for authenticity. Constituents don’t want edicts from on-high; they want to understand challenges and contribute to solutions. Employees want to follow the leader who’s looking for the best idea in the room—not the leader who always knows best.
Honing Your Humility Practice
Knowing that humility is a key leadership skill, how can you hone your humility practice? Here are three tips that will help you develop this essential competency for building authentic leadership connection.
1. Know Yourself
“The surest way to lose sight of who you are is to constantly compare yourself to others.” – Tom Krause
As with many leadership traits, humility hinges on your sense of self. It’s difficult to be vulnerable or real with others if you don’t know your own mind. Exploring your values, belief systems, and goals for the future are important steps to recognizing both your strengths and your weaknesses—and discovering what matters to you most.
In The Blueprint, Harvard Business School professor and former Medtronic CEO, Bill George, shared his journey to leading more authentically: He finally found fulfillment went he stopped pursuing the things he thought he was supposed to do and began following an inner calling towards more meaningful work. He observed that a lack of self-knowledge hinders leaders’ ability to connect with others because you can’t “be real with people when you are preoccupied with presenting an overly polished version of yourself.”
To apply Bill’s wisdom, it’s important for leaders to reflect on both the what and the why of their leadership goals.
- Are you doing things you truly believe in? Or are you doing the things you think you’re supposed to do?
- Are you operating out of fear, duty, or expectations? Or are you being true to what you really envision for your life and career?
To further your self-knowledge, Doug Conant provides several additional prompts and exercises for connecting with your values, beliefs, and goals in The Blueprint. These questions are worth exploring because ultimately you can’t be humble if you aren’t willing to be honest with yourself—first and foremost.
2. Check Your Ego at the Door
“Pride is concerned with who is right. Humility is concerned with what is right.” – Ezra Benson
Ernest Hemingway wrote, “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.” Yet studies show that individuals routinely rate themselves “higher than average on desirable traits,” and, “lower than average on undesirable traits.” People tend to overestimate their own strengths and underestimate their own weaknesses—all while judging others more harshly than they do themselves. This human tendency points to an important way to grow your humility: Learn to accept that you might be wrong.
Some leaders receive challenges, questions, or opposing points of view as a personal attack. But often it doesn’t matter who is right or wrong in a given situation; it is more important that we are receptive to other opinions so that we do not stifle great ideas. If we truly want to make humility a part of our everyday life, we must be open to feedback and willing to sit with the discomfort of not always being right. A willingness to frequently re-assess our own thoughts, beliefs, and practices helps us to continuously improve and grow.
It is helpful to reflect on questions like these—
- Are you annoyed or hurt when an employee brings up a concern or are you eager to explore possible solutions?
- Are you overly concerned with who is right or what paints you in the most flattering light or are you considering what’s best for the organization?
- Are you looking outward and trying to outshine your colleagues or are you focused inward on self-improvement and becoming a better leader?
Checking your ego does not mean that you must lose self-confidence, constantly question your own judgment, or berate yourself for shortcomings. It only requires that you humbly acknowledge your fallibility. In fact, confidence and humility are interconnected: Admitting when you’re wrong makes you seem more relatable and self-assured, while a refusal to own mistakes telegraphs low self-esteem.
3. Listen and Learn
“True humility is being able to accept criticisms as graciously as we accept compliments.” – Sabrina Newby
Countless books and studies show that listening skills are essential to effective leadership and employee job satisfaction. While there are many ways to improve and practice your listening skills, humility is foundational to becoming a better listener. Yes, you can practice body language, master eye contact, and rehearse effective listening frameworks. But all those skills will feel insincere if you are not listening with a curious spirit. You won’t become a good listener until you genuinely want to hear what is being said.
Dr. Stephen R. Covey said, “Being influenceable is the key to influencing others,” and he also said, “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” To form better leadership connections and ensure you don’t miss out on great ideas, approach each conversation with:
- The patience to hear and understand
- The willingness to be influenced
In their book TouchPoints: Creating Powerful Leadership Connections in the Smallest of Moments, Doug Conant and Mette Norgaard offer a simple framework for practicing humble listening:
- Listen intently – seek to understand and wait for your turn to speak
- Frame the issue – repeat the issue back for clarity and to confirm you understood
- Advance the agenda – help them push the issue forward
The more you can apply these tools and approach your interactions with humility, the better at listening and learning you will be.
In a world of unlimited connection, where it seems everyone is vying to prove how polished and accomplished they are, it takes conscious effort to go against the grain. Great leaders know that a growing body of evidence shows that humility is the key to building authentic leadership connection—and they are strong enough to push back against the pressure to curate an appearance of perfection. So don’t follow the pack. When you put in the effort to know yourself, you can pursue the right goals. When you check your ego at the door, you can hear the best ideas. And when you listen and learn, you can connect with others more meaningfully than ever before.
Enjoyed these insights? Don’t miss our 5th Biannual BLUEPRINT Leadership Summit featuring Doug Conant in conversation with top leadership minds and luminaries. Registration is FREE, but space is limited, RSVP today: https://start.conantleadership.com/blueprint-leadership-summit/
Find Doug’s past #BLUEPRINTSummit conversations with top thought leaders like Brené Brown, Bill George, Amy Edmondson, Indra Nooyi, Dan Pink, Susan Cain, and more in our video library.
And find blog recaps of past summit discussions in our resources here: https://conantleadership.com/blog/
About the Author: McKinlee Covey is an educator, coach, and co-author with Stephen M.R. Covey of the WSJ bestseller, Trust & Inspire.