Humble leaders, who admit they don't have all the answers, create space for people to learn and innovate. Humility fosters curiosity and trust, critical for entrepreneurial environments. It is a key leadership quality that enables the open, fearless culture needed for innovation to thrive.
"We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master." -Ernest Hemingway
I recently attended a celebratory event honoring one of my longtime colleagues—an entrepreneur turned educator—recognizing his visionary contributions to fostering the entrepreneurial mindset in thousands of young people. While he was lauded by speakers for his many fine attributes, a predominant theme emerged focused on his exceptional personal humility.
One of his students, now a successful entrepreneur, commented that the teacher’s humility fostered curiosity and inquisitiveness in the students he mentored. As an educator, he did not pretend to have all the answers. Instead he served as a role model, encouraging experimentation, exploration, problem solving, and shared learning in an open and inspirational environment. This former student emphasized that the quality of humility is indeed an essential ingredient of effective entrepreneurial mentoring. The message humility sends is that the teacher/mentor does not know all the answers. The answers are yet to be discovered and therefore cannot be taught. It also signals that each trailblazer must draw upon his/her own imagination to find the answer. This particular young entrepreneur identified this fundamental lesson as key to his success in launching and building his own tech venture.
Humility emanating from a leader gives space for individuals to flourish and therefore, entire organizations to thrive. This is especially true when humility is coupled with a strong will to succeed, according to author and researcher Jim Collins in his well-known book Good to Great (2001). Collins developed the Level 5 Hierarchy of Leadership with Level 5 representing the pinnacle of leadership for those who demonstrate an unusual “duality: modest and willful, humble and fearless.” Level 5 leadership “builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.” It is not that Level 5 leaders do not possess ambition or ego, but rather they laser focus their ambitions on the organization they are building and not on themselves or their own personal advancement. Their aptitude for doing what it takes to get the job done inspires others to work hard as members of a dedicated team focused on achieving a shared goal.
Within organizations, a culture of humility has other related benefits. Humility contributes to an atmosphere of mutual learning among colleagues and conveys the critical message that no one has all the answers. When a leader has the confidence to be humble and learn along with team members, everyone can be more open and vulnerable. Important questions are posed, ideas are explored, and innovations happen. Trust builds and healthy team interactions are fostered. Humility is the underpinning that creates an organization-wide learning culture and in turn, leads to deeper engagement and investment in the work required to reach audacious goals.
This type of learning culture grounded in humility is especially important in an entrepreneurial environment. Understanding that there is no one right answer and that teams are constantly in discovery mode adds to the energy and richness of the experience. This environment leads to creation of a stronger organization that can go the distance building its innovation muscle for the future. Learning from failure becomes the norm and psychological safety prevails. How teams interact through brainstorming, transparency, and inclusion creates routines and safe spaces for idea generation and refinement.
As author Amy Edmondson has so eloquently stated in The Fearless Organization (2019), vibrant innovation requires work environments that are fearless, safe, and empowering. Humility is a key ingredient of leadership that contributes significantly to fertile ground for innovation to thrive.
(Originally published by Smart Business in 2022)
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