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Why humility in leadership is a cure-all for what ails you

stocksnap.io Matthew Wiebe

Feeling like a fraud? Promoted out of your comfort zone? Anxious in a new job? Just try this…

I found myself promoted to an executive director’s position early on in my career. I was a victim of bad management by my boss’s boss. He found himself with a director’s vacancy in another department and instead of recruiting properly, he scalped me from underneath my director’s nose. As a matter of fact, I came back to my desk one afternoon to find a sticky note from HR that read “Elizabeth, you have been terminated from this job and moved to the [other organisation’s] director post.”

I am not making that up. My family still laughs about it to this day. I wasn’t laughing about it at the time.

What’s worse, my director’s boss hadn’t even told him that he’d done it. My boss also heard it for the first time that day and at first thought I must have orchestrated the whole thing behind his back. Luckily that thought was fleeting, as we had a good relationship. But it was a mess for us both.

There are no end of ways to be a bad manager and a leader. I have experienced them all, some in spades, and it can make for a miserable quality of work-life. What feels even more rubbish is that often when you have a bad manager you can’t do your best work, or sometimes even good work. You can become ineffective as you fight a dysfunctional system due to poor or non-existent leadership from the top.

After the sticky note termination shock wore off, and I got ready to walk into my first day as director of the other department, I vowed I would never be so paltry in my duties as a leader as I had just experienced.

The team I took on had every right to be sceptical of my abilities. They had every right to feel suspicious of the way I had come into the role. They had every right to be worried that I would be incompetent, and come in and mess everything up, and cop some blustery hard-nose attitude to cover up the fact that I had no idea what I was doing.

I had become the victim of the Peter Principle, but then so had they.

What the Peter Principle says is that when you are really good at your profession- let’s say you’re a bricklayer- you will keep getting promoted up until you are managing other bricklayers, and sadly probably not getting to do much actual bricklaying at all.

Now, just because you were a supremo bricklayer doesn’t mean you know a single thing about managing people and leading teams. Maybe you’re a natural at it, but maybe you are way out of your comfort zone and capability.

Everyone in an organization keeps on getting promoted until they reach their level of incompetence. -Overcoming the Peter Principle by Andrea Ovans, Harvard Business Review

Your manager was lazy, and made some assumptions perhaps without giving you the training and support that you needed to properly develop professionally. That manager has in turn just screwed over everyone you will manage as well.

Being a victim of the Peter Principle is just one reason you may be struggling as a leader. There are many other reasons you may be having a crisis of confidence, such as feeling like a fraud or like you will be found out not to have a clue what you’re doing (Imposter Syndrome), or feeling anxious to make an impact in your first 100 days in a new job or under a new boss.

Leading and managing teams is not easy, and certain circumstances can make it feel a whole lot harder.

For me it was a baptism by fire, and I like to think I stepped up to the challenge. It could easily have gone so horribly wrong. Three multi-million pound department turnarounds later, this is the most valuable lesson I learned about being a leader in these situations:

Stay humble.

What this means is that you must:

  • Show some humility. Get confident in saying “I don’t know”, or “I need help”.
  • Ask a lot of questions. Do a lot of listening.
  • Ask others to step up and let them shine.
  • Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Admit to it quickly, apologise when you get it wrong, and ask for help to make it right.
  • Ask how you can make it better for others.
  • Stretch your team and invest in their development.

This may not be as easy as it sounds. One of our first instincts as humans when we find ourselves in a situation that makes us feel anxious, or frightened, or threatened is to get defensive and hostile. There can be a tendency to tear down others in order to feel less threatened by them, or to bluster over your insecurity and bully your way into people’s confidence that you can actually do the job and are worthy.

Of course you will quickly be found out, and this method almost always backfires. It will leave you alienated from your team, less effective than ever, and probably feeling miserable.

Applied consistently over time, the rules of humility will give you a sense of stability and confidence in your role. You will come to realise that you can make mistakes, that you don’t have to know everything, and your team will be on board with you.

Most people like to feel useful and valued, and being able to step in and help the boss is one of the ways that people can do this in the workplace. Over time you will see those feelings of being a fraud and that fear of being found out dissipate.

This is the foundation of the talent that marks an effective leader- learning to work with and through others. It may mean giving up some glory, or having patience as you help people gain confidence and belief in the fact that you really do value and desire their input. It also means overcoming destructive perfectionism and accepting that your way is not always the best way or the only way.

The other benefits of humility include that it reminds you that we are all just making it up as we go along. Generally we are all trying to do our best and make an impact and enjoy what we do.

Remember that everyone else is, too. Help others do what they are trying to do so that they feel good about themselves, and you will be amazed at how much easier your job gets and how much better you feel about it, too.

I write about how I became the founder of a tech startup as a non-techie, over-40 female with no entrepreneurial experience, and all I am learning along the way. You can see more here: https://medium.com/@eshassere If you think this might be helpful for others on their entrepreneurial journey, please recommend and share by clicking the heart.