Should a Manager Be Humble?19 Nov 2019
As firms are communities of people with a shared purpose, they require cooperation to yield not only economic results but also the development of people’s knowledge, abilities, values and virtues.
Can a manager be humble? When we talk about a person with authority and power, who decides the organization’s goals, who makes important decisions and shoulders the consequent responsibilities, and who is the firm’s public image, is it really reasonable to expect that person to be humble - understood as unassuming, timid and insecure?
The problem is not with the question; it is the initial premises that are wrong, as they project a wrong image of the business leader as an individualist, a person who knows perfectly well what he wants and needs no-one to give him advice, who is unshakably determined to put his plan into action, and awaits his next success to jump to a new, more important position. This image was forged in the years of economic bonanza, driven by a conception of the firm based on financial success without limit, and a public opinion that adulated the successful leaders, investing them with the ability to achieve spectacular results, on their own, without the help of others. However, only a few years later, the devastating scandals and the financial crisis led us to realise that this idealized figure of the charismatic, triumphant CEO was not realistic.
We increasingly see the firm as a community of people with different abilities and qualities, different goals and expectations, who work together on a shared project in which everyone is necessary and, while financial results are important, they are not the only important results, and, in the long term, not even the most important results. In such an organization, the CEO’s job is to coordinate everyone’s knowledge, abilities, initiative and effort to attain a purpose that includes but goes beyond profit, among other reasons because he must ensure the firm’s continuity, which is only possible if sufficient unity is achieved among all its members. If all this is true, the leader’s moral qualities take on great significance.
This does not mean that the manager we have presented as proud and individualistic is necessarily doomed to failure; he will have other abilities and virtues that will enhance his work, and he will be supported by effective subordinates, good professionals willing to help him, even though he often does not give them enough attention or sufficiently appreciate their merits. Experience shows that organizations are usually highly resilient, so even an arrogant, narcissistic CEO can get good results, at least for a while. However, he will not win the trust of his managers and employees, he will not motivate them to engage with the firm’s purpose, and he will not foster those specific abilities, which they are capable of and which can transform the firm into a totally different kind of organization. And the worst of it is that he will not even realise any of this, because he will not know what his human team could achieve if he treated them differently. If he does not assume the role of a humble leader, he may be a financially successful manager but he will not be an excellent manager.
What is humility?
Humility is a virtue. [i] Virtues are strong, stable, acquired personal qualities that allow us to perform actions that pursue excellence, not mechanically, but with freedom and effort. The virtuous manager will understand a given situation in all its depth, including its ethical implications (cognitive dimension), he will not remain indifferent to the situation (emotional dimension), he will feel driven and committed to act (motivational dimension), and he will perform the action because he will have the necessary strength of will to overcome pressures and temptations (behavioural dimension).
Humility is usually defined as the recognition of one’s own limits and possibilities, of what is good and bad in oneself. It is not a bad definition, but it limits humility to something negative when it is, above all, a positive virtue: to be humble is “to walk in truth,” said Teresa of Jesus, a 16th century Spanish mystic. The humble person knows himself, realistically and, insofar as it is possible, objectively; he is aware of what he knows and what he is capable of, his strengths and weaknesses, his tangible and intangible assets and liabilities, and the possible consequences of all this.
In turn, this self-knowledge gives rise to a realistic self-assessment and self-esteem: there is no unjustified self-exaltation but neither is there self-scorn. And as he is aware of what he owes to others, the humble person does not take all the credit for this strengths and achievements, and this will doubtless motivate the people who are around him. In the same way that he seeks to know himself, the humble manager will also seek to acquire a realistic knowledge of outside reality and, above all, of other people.
So, is knowledge the key to humility? No: the most important quality of the humble manager is the attitude or willingness to know and know himself. He will never know himself fully but, through his effort, he will develop the necessary incentives and abilities to know himself now, and the willingness to better to know himself in the future. In other words, he will be aware of his errors so that he can learn from them, apologise and make amends, and he will recognise his qualities so that he can develop them, but without becoming obsessed with self-diagnosis. And, as we have already said, he will make effort to acquire objective, impartial knowledge of his environment, seeing the opportunities or threats for his action.
If he wishes to know himself, the humble manager will be willing to receive information about himself, he will express appreciation for the corrections he receives, he will not feel threatened by what others know or think about him, he will not harbour feelings of inferiority, he will try not to depend on other people’s approval, he will hide neither his mistakes and failures nor his successes. He will ask for advice, because he will need to supplement the vision he has of himself with the vision provided by others. And if he compares himself with them, he will not do so to feel superior but to learn from their qualities. He will know his place in the world, and he will have the ability to compare himself with realities and values that are far superior to him, and which will spur him to improve each day.
And he will apply all this to his relationships with others: he will acknowledge their merits and achievements, he will be willing to share projects with others, he will offer them opportunities, he will encourage them to act and will try to develop their virtues and abilities, defining in this manner how he understands leadership within the organization.
The logical outcome of all this is the creation of an atmosphere of trust and cooperation, breaking barriers, respecting, listening, engaging with his superiors and his collaborators, supporting initiatives, encouraging everyone to shoulder their responsibilities… And as a consequence of all the above, he will have a low self-focus, putting his own achievements in perspective, giving value to what other people do, not inflating his own importance and not trying to focus other people’s attention on himself.
This cannot remain as a purely intellectual attitude: these personality traits must be manifested practically and continuously developed with small but repeated efforts. This can be done with the help of other social virtues, which give form to the humble person’s character. For example, when a manager is pondering whether he should place greater trust in an employee who is perhaps trying to manipulate a decision, humility, which would perhaps incline him towards conferring this trust, will be tempered by prudence or practical wisdom, which will provide guidance for making the right decision. The humble manager will probably develop a broad spectrum of moral conducts focused on others.
Another virtue that will probably flourish alongside humility is magnanimity. The humble leader does not fly short, like a chicken, but long, like an eagle. He is not self-limiting in his ambitions and aspirations: he knows his limitations, but also his possibilities, he counts on other people’s help and is able to set himself lofty goals, because he is not pursuing his own personal success but that of the organization as a whole and of the people who work with him, within the framework of a fairer, more prosperous society. His moral learning will be a function of the height of his goals, the perseverance of his effort and the simplicity of his attitudes.
Putting humility into practice
Humility might not produce spectacular results but it will undoubtedly contribute to a better management. A humble leader will make mistakes, like everybody, but probably fewer than many, and, in any case, he will correct them sooner and willingly; he will have a more stable personality, because he will be swayed less easily by praise and criticism alike. He will accept both his responsibilities and those of the people who depend on him; he will have a greater capability for improving, he will accept help and will not be obsessed with personal triumph. He will work well in a team, removing barriers to understanding and cooperation, generating trust, and uncovering and fostering other people’s abilities. In the long run, it is likely that his organization will encourage cooperation and participation, and more attention will be paid to people and less to hierarchy and rules.
No doubt, the reader will be thinking that this is all very good but it isn’t realistic. True enough: a humble manager cannot guarantee his business’s profitability or survival but he will be able to say, most probably, that he is endeavouring to be a good manager, an excellent manager, if he possesses the other necessary abilities and knowledge. As with the other virtues, trying to make humility part of one’s life puts into motion a process of personal change, which will lead one to learn about other things, starting with oneself, to develop other abilities, change one’s personal decision-making process, appreciate other things, teach one’s team to seek and change their knowledge, capabilities and values, perhaps reappraise the firm’s objectives and culture. However, for anyone embarking on this path, the only thing they will know for sure is that all of this will change, although he will not be able to predict specifically what he will learn and what changes will take place. The leader who already is humble, even if he is only slightly humble, will know what he must do and will probably decide to put it into practice, but a leader who is neither humble nor has ever tried to be humble will never see it as a meaningful endeavour.
In fact, a large part of our fellow citizens will not be aligned with the recognition of humility, perhaps because their goal is purely economic or media success, and humility can never be a means to achieve such ends. Or perhaps they view other people with distrust and fear, even those who today are their closest associates but may perhaps one day overshadow them. Or because they confine ethics to a set of social rules that do not pursue people’s development but, rather, seek to maintain a balance that is, by its very nature, unstable. Making virtues a living reality in the firm, starting with humility, may be perceived as countercultural. But, if we want to live in a better society, it is something we must have the courage to do. And firms are a good place to start because, as we said before, they are communities of people with a shared purpose, that respect everyone’s motivations but require cooperation that not only brings forth economic results but also develops people’s knowledge, abilities, values and virtues.
[i] I have developed these ideas in Humility in management. Journal of Business Ethics, 132(1), 2015, 63-71, and Humility and decision making in companies. Working Paper IESE Business School, WP-1164-E, 2017 (forthcoming in J.C. Wright, ed., Humility: Reflections on Its Nature and Function. New York, NY: Oxford University Press).