Humility – an essential ingredient for modern leaders

As I continue to go out into the world and discuss the essential capabilities that modern leaders must have if they and their organisations expect to be successful in the 21st century and as I continue to discuss the traps for modern leaders which include most talented, modern leaders hitting a wall at about 80% along their career journey, I continue to see hundreds of nodding heads in agreement.

People know that gone are the days of top-down, hard-nosed direction. People know that within a modern leader’s portfolio of capabilities is the ability to be humble, to manage and understand multiple points of view and to empathise with all stakeholders in order to foster success.

The heads are nodding too as modern leaders recognise themselves when I describe the symptoms that appear at the 80% career wall – a wall they did not even know existed.  We discuss what it feels like to be at that wall, bashing a head against it and what they can do to get over that wall and into the top 20% peak performance zone.

A modern leader can use humility (which includes having a belief that one does not have all the answers and that ‘my’ paradigm is not necessarily the correct and only paradigm) not only to lead a team and an organisation successfully but can also apply it when considering where they are on the career continuum and why.  It’s heartening when someone recognises they are stuck at the wall for usually one of three reasons:

  1. Misalignment – lost sight of their personal vision
  2. Playing to weaknesses – were hired for their strengths but spend most of their day utilising weaknesses
  3. Ill-equipped for environment – lack the sophisticated skills required at this level to navigate environment & the people within it which includes self-awareness and humility.

It’s disheartening (and the more I go out and speak about this wall concept, the more I am seeing this) when people are clearly at the 80% wall but have so little self-awareness including humility that they swear blindly they are in the top 20% peak performance zone.  They delight in telling me and those around them that it’s ‘lonely at the top’ but it is great to be so successful.  As I dig deeper however I see that they are deeply critical of others, tend to have a limited paradigm and their definition of success is feeling more powerful than others.  They are oblivious to the fact team members are fearful of them and that those members gave up a long time ago, putting their opinions forward.

“My name is Sherlock Holmes. It is my business to know what other people don’t know”. – Sherlock Holmes, The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle

Some leaders who are at the wall but think they are over the wall and sitting pretty in the top 20% calm, peaceful and rewarding zone, lack the bravery and humility needed to ask themselves ‘What is it that I don’t know?  What is it I don’t see? What are my blind spots? What’s my paradigm and who can help me to view the world through an alternative paradigm? Who can help me to climb the wall that I am stuck at as I realise I don’t have all the answers and can’t do it alone?

Those who remain blind and closed-off will stay at the wall and although they believe they sit in the top 20% zone, so much of what sits in that peak performance zone is closed off to them.  They may not experience the symptoms that tell regular leaders they are bashing their heads against a wall at the 80% mark such as a pit in the stomach; feelings of emptiness or restlessness or anxiety but they will not escape scot free. These are the leaders who will develop stomach ulcers or angina at some point in time.  (Morbid but true).

Those who do not remain blind but are open are the ones who are like Navy Seals standing at the wall alongside team mates and instructors.  They use their eyes, their ears, their wisdom, their humility and they take those tools and ropes that are handed to them and with sheer grit, scale that solid, big and seemingly unscaleable wall.

Will you?

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