Fancy working for Google? If so, you’ll need to cultivate humility: it’s one of the traits that the company looks for in new hires, according to an article in the Harvard Business Review (HBR). Google’s Senior Vice President of People Operations Laszlo Block believes that, in the absence of humility, you are “unable to learn”. Here are a few characteristics of humility – including what it looks like in a leader.
Humility makes no assumptions
History has taught us that pride, the opposite of humility, often comes before a fall. We see this today across all spheres of work, from politics to business to sport. Fans of Arsenal football club will perhaps not want to be reminded about their team’s dismal display in their recent Champions League match against Monaco. Just before the match, sports pundit Gary Neville had opined that the match would be “too easy” for Arsenal, that Monaco were no more than “mannequins”. Indeed, Arsenal fans had rubbed their hands with glee at the news of their ‘plum draw’ against Monaco. But the team’s pride, it could be argued, was their fall. It was Arsenal who appeared to be "too easy" for Monaco. They had assumed their dominance and were caught off guard; discombobulated, silenced by a team they had expected to be no more than an obstacle to be overcome.
Humility admits mistakes, using them for the greater good
Learning from criticism and admitting mistakes is an act of humility, according to research by Catalyst. Humble leaders are willing to learn from different points of view, and they proactively seek the contributions of their colleagues in order to reduce their own limitations. And by using their mistakes as “teachable moments”, they legitimise the mistakes of others: it’s OK to make mistakes, provided you learn from them. Moreover, it’s easier to relate to those who are prepared to share their shortcomings; it reassures us that it’s OK for us to be infallible.
Humble leaders are approachable
Tim Westergren, Chief Strategy Officer and co-founder of Pandora, explains in this video why humility is key to leadership and building teams. As he says in the video, people are motivated and inspired by leaders that are seen as humble. And humble leaders are approachable leaders; they are leaders to whom you can deliver good news and bad news, without fear of recriminations. As Deepa Purushothaman, principal at Deloitte Consulting, points out in this video, employees often harbour a fear of telling senior executives that something is not going well; but there is a “real value and need” for this, especially “in the C-Suite”. A humble leadership style encourages truth-telling.
Humble leaders engage in dialogue, not confrontation
Humility enables people to engage with a range of viewpoints. Humble leaders do not prioritise being right or swaying others to their points of view. They are not motivated by proving the validity of their own opinions – they know that this approach serves no one. Moreover, they value the opportunity to discover perspectives other than their own and view this as a means of learning. As such, humble leaders create the space for others to offer their own solutions; they put the greater good ahead of their ego.
It is more than unfortunate that humility is often mistaken for weakness. But an attitude of humility is not weakness: humility can and does exist symbiotically with traits such as ambition and drive. Furthermore, it is not an easy trait to cultivate. The end goal of humility, according to Bock, is problem–solving; humility is not purely about giving another the space to contribute. It is a means to greater enlightenment – through learning.