Why is humility so relevant for leaders and can it be developed through coaching?

Are the days of the strong ‘hero’ leader over? Not yet, but there’s still another way, says Khalid Aziz.

Whether your organisation operates in the commercial or not for profit sectors, the current global landscape means the problems senior leaders will encounter are increasingly complex and require a collaborative approach to solving them.

No one person will have all the right answers. The ability to demonstrate humility, by visibly embracing mistakes and failure, accepting criticism and acknowledging that other people’s capabilities may be superior to their own, are essential personality traits for CEOs and senior leaders to have.

It’s paradoxical that humility among leaders has become so important, given that as a society we continue to celebrate the strong, charismatic leader. It is rare to read about a CEO who shuns the limelight and puts the credit for his success down to his employees.

The closest we got to it recently was when Tim Cook acknowledged that Apple’s success was due to the brilliance of its employees. That disclosure became a much bigger story than the financial success they were reporting. As a more typically charismatic leader, would Steve Jobs have responded with the same humility too if he were in that position?

Many leaders feel they can’t display humility because of the pressure to appear faultless and competent. They see being humble as showing a weakness and don’t always appreciate that this leadership style will foster the followship and longterm loyalty that is so essential today.

Most people already have humility inside them, but have learned to behave in the opposite way and adopt the traditional ‘hero’ persona instead at work. 

As Mark Carney, the Bank of England Governor commented recently, although people want their leaders to be strong, they also want them to admit they might not know the answer to everything. A leader willing to expose their weaknesses is be more likely to engender support and loyalty from fellow employees.

Humility isn’t just relevant at the very top of the leadership ladder, it’s just as important for middle management to demonstrate as it is for the CEO, perhaps even more so. Issues with line management is one of the main reasons cited by employees when they leave a job and it creates huge disruption. Organisations should be mindful of this when they are talent spotting for future ‘high potentials’.

There are set traits that individuals with natural humility display. One key indicator is an individual who genuinely seeks opinion, information and insights from people, absorbing what is uncovered and acting upon it, giving credit where due.

They are the people who speak on level terms with everyone in the organisation, subtly adjusting their approach and language to make it easy for anyone to express their view.  They won’t rely on high level language only used in the C-suite when communicating and will be authentic in as much as they will still ‘be themselves’. 

As a leadership coach, I am often asked whether it is possible to coach an individual to develop humility and the short answer is yes, it is possible to be coached. Most people already have humility inside them, but have learned to behave in the opposite way and adopt the traditional ‘hero’ persona instead at work.

They will tend to only display it if there’s a genuinely humble culture permeating the organisation from the top. Get that right and any developmental issues will typically take care of themselves.

Where coaching is needed, one very effective method to use is the ‘other way round’ theory. This involves inviting the coachee to put themselves in the shoes of the audience or receiver of their messages and a coach can role play this to great effect.


Once the individual starts to appreciate how it feels to be on the receiving end of someone who appears to arrogantly ‘know it all’, they very quickly develop the ability to manage their ego and consider the impact on others first. After the exercise, they start to understand that humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.

Ultimately, the efficacy of different coaching methodologies will vary with individual candidates. Some will respond better to self-discovery of insights and experiential coaching, where the coach facilitates a growth in self-awareness.

Other candidates – particularly those from backgrounds such as finance and engineering tend to require a more formulaic, disciplined and even a directive approach. It really depends on their individual learning styles.

Another way of looking at humility is to see it as openness to new ideas. It shouldn’t be viewed as the latest fad; but an essential part of any great leader’s armoury. Like other leadership characteristics when used appropriately it can deliver compelling results.

Businesses who embrace it thrive, because it creates buy-in at all levels and maximises engagement. We all like to have an opportunity to share our ideas and be heard, even though we know that not everyone will agree with, or act upon them.


About the author

Khalid Aziz is founder and chairman of Aziz Corporate who work with CEOs and their top teams to improve organisational performance through executive coaching.




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