The Humble CEO: Why leaders need to be more vulnerable

By Olga Valadon, above, founder of leadership consultancy Change Aligned® 

In the ongoing churn of work, forces like humility and psychological safety are like air. We don’t think about them until we – or our team – don’t have them. A chronic lack of psychological safety will choke company cultures, destroy team objectives, and decimate bottom lines. Add to this the personal misery and dread it causes, and you have a recipe for departmental or company-wide meltdown.

Several factors erode psychological safety, but cultures that uphold “superhero” or “saviour” leaders are increasingly problematic. They foster troublesome norms like self-promotion, perfectionism, and cutthroat ambition.

Most Boomers and Gen X workers generally tolerate such superstar leaders. However, millennial and Gen Z workers perceive them as toxic and reject them en masse. To work with these groups effectively, leaders must cultivate humility in themselves and others.

The links between humility and positive workplace traits are well-established. These traits include collaboration, transparency, teachability, self-awareness, insight, and engagement. Consequently, these traits alleviate fear and create the foundations for psychological safety. Business researchers have also linked greater overall firm success to the “humble CEO.”

Still, humility feels abstract, especially in today’s business world. How can you bring more of it to your leadership and team?

  1. Start an Imperfection Practice

CEOs and leaders are an aspirational and conscientious bunch of people. This conscientiousness, along with a strong vision, invites perfectionism. Yet, the higher they climb the ladder of their ambition, the more they appreciate the value of mistakes. Eventually, they become masters in the art of mistakes.

How can you do this?

First, you can plan for the inevitability of mistakes. Then, commit to making every error useful. Sim Sitkin, a Duke University professor, calls this practice “intelligent failure.” People who master the art of making mistakes not only have to deal with errors and failure, they learn to want to. They use their mistakes to fuel growth.

If leaders already have a perfection practice, humble leaders need an imperfection practice. Learning to accept imperfection in yourself can cultivate humility.

Each week, ask yourself:  How did you deal with your own mistakes, imperfection, and failure? How did you frame them?  How did you make them useful?

  1. Start a Vulnerability Practice

Leaders often fear humility because they believe it’s the opposite of confidence. However, humility is one of the finest expressions of confidence.

Have you known a leader who’s too arrogant to see their own mistakes and too prideful to admit them? Did this inspire confidence or loss of faith?

One of the easiest ways to cultivate and express humility is to be willing to see and admit your mistakes by openly discussing them. When you openly discuss a mistake, frame it with a key learning. Doing so is courageous and fosters an atmosphere of safety and trust. When people see a leader being vulnerable, they feel safer practicing their own “intelligent failure.” Failure becomes insight.

Each week, ask yourself how you dealt with vulnerability. What mistakes did you make?  Do you openly talk about any of them? How might doing so be courageous and help you and your team grow?

  1. Start an “I Don’t Know” Practice

When it comes to being vulnerable, saying “I don’t know” is a rare gift. This is especially true for leaders caught in the crosshairs of competing tasks, responsibilities, and expectations. As a leader, you’re expected to know it all. That’s what makes you a leader, right?

But what if it isn’t?

The superhero leader knows it all. And if they don’t, they’ll figure it out quietly or make something up. What they won’t do is admit they don’t know. Over time, the one who knows all the answers either becomes a know-it-all or is perceived as incompetent when their flashes of brilliance fall flat.

Each week, reflect on times when you were asked something and either didn’t know the answer, didn’t know what to do, or didn’t have a solution. What was your most prominent emotion in these moments? Did you feel safe enough to say you didn’t know? If not, what could help you feel safe enough? What are the pros and cons of saying I don’t know? On a scale of 1-10, how comfortable are you with saying, “I don’t know?”

Humility is a personality trait, but it’s also an important leadership trait you can cultivate to become a servant leader. Consider starting a weekly reflective practice to encourage humility in yourself and your team. Not only will it help foster highly valuable workplace traits, but it will also help you build relevance in a changing world.

Olga Valadon is a corporate empathy expert and the founder of leadership, strategy and culture consultancy Change Aligned®.