Do You Have the Courage to be Humble?

Are you a leader trying to transition a command-and-control hierarchy to a culture of employee empowerment and organizational learning? If the shift is not happening as easily as you expected, consider that you may be directing instead of empowering, or communicating mixed messages.

Take the case of Bill, who founded a manufacturing company to make additives for rubber some 30 years ago. He is exceptionally proud of his organization and the people he employs. He is keen to create a learning organization that will empower his employees to stay a step ahead of the new international competitors, who are putting pressure on his sales and profits.

Bill failed to realize that his paternalistic “take care of my employees” attitude disempowered the people he worked to develop. His promises to provide jobs, education, and even rewards prompted positive responses from his employees. Upon reflection, he came to realize that he was communicating mixed messages about their roles and responsibilities. He intended to give the employees personal power over their own careers and the business. Why emphasize what he will do for them?

Learn Deliberately

In this highly competitive, global business climate, employees who are motivated by these extrinsic factors are much less likely to learn. They are less likely to take chances, question the norm, or innovate. In order to change the organization, employees must take an active role in recognizing their own strengths and faults. In short, they must learn deliberately.

Leaders must make the process of learning explicit. Understanding their approach to using it will continue to develop in response to challenges. They can model this behavior to employees by questioning their own assumptions and those of others, while not making it personal. Through learning, people are empowered to speak up when they have a different perspective or see another approach. This ends the sugar-coating or side-stepping of issues that offer opportunities or require corrective action. Leaders welcome dissenting views because they often illuminate blind spots.

Ray Dalio, founder of the successful investment firm Bridgewater Associates, understands the value of learning. When people take chances to bet against the consensus as Dalio does, there is a high probability that they may be wrong. After experiencing a setback early in his career, he adopted a more humble approach to making decisions. He courageously seeks out the smartest people he can find who disagree with him in order to understand their reasoning and assumptions. He believes that only after fully grasping other points of view can he make an informed decision to accept or reject.

Dalio suggests approaching any disagreement with thoughtful curiosity rather than antagonism and defensiveness. He delves for diverse conclusions and the reasoning behind this diversity. Dalio makes sure he practices this humble approach. He insists on total transparency when his team disagrees with him.

Being a Humble Learner

Real learning requires giving up the certainty of knowing something. Leaders must be open to seeing new possibilities. Leaders must recognize that they can only drink from the ocean of experience teacup by teacup. Their previous conceptions must always be tested by new information—they must be humble learners. Being a humble learner does not mean being simple, weak, or insecure.

The gift of learning is mastery and greater knowledge. As learners, leaders acquire a secure self-confidence and sense of competence. Yet the openness to experience that brings new learning also prevents this self-esteem from becoming arrogance. Humble learners are fully aware of their talents and abilities, but also know their limitations. Recognizing that they are always in the process of learning allows them to admit limitations and mistakes and learn from others.

If you are a leader trying to transition a command-and-control hierarchy to a culture of employee empowerment and organizational learning, have the courage to be humble using deliberate learning.