A new book about humility in leadership arrives with excellent timing

His campaign unmasked a changed man.
His campaign unmasked a changed man.
Image: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
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Like a lot of left-leaning voters, Jon Stewart, the US comedian and political satirist, was not overjoyed that Joe Biden won the Democratic primaries this year. In an interview with Stephen Colbert this summer, he said he was rooting for Biden in the general election over US president Donald Trump, but the moderate politician, he said, “wasn’t my guy.”

Stewart changed his mind after watching Biden on the campaign trail. He saw someone who intuitively understood what Americans were coping with in 2020, he said. “There’s a humility to the randomness of tragedy that brings about a caring that can’t be faked,” Stewart observed, referring to the grief Biden had experienced in losing his son Beau to brain cancer five years ago, more than four decades after his first wife and infant daughter died in a car crash. “[W]hat this country needs is a leader of humility that understands that he doesn’t understand, that understands the humanity of this experiment, and the difficulty that it is in maintaining it, and that we have to connect with each other on a much deeper level without the bullshit.”

Trump, meanwhile, “is still in the mindset that Covid was created to block him from having a second term,” Stewart continued, pithily capturing the incumbent’s breathtaking narcissism.

Frank Bruni, a New York Times columnist, recently wrote about his own adjusted opinion of Biden. In the 2020 election, Bruni wrote, Biden was not the politician he had encountered in years past. Where Biden would once drone on without letting others speak and had “a way of sucking the oxygen out of a room,” he now had a “radical humility.” Biden had become a listener, who put other people first in his campaign speeches and didn’t appear in his own victory video. Bruni called it part of the “New Humility” ethos.

Like Stewart, Bruni believed that grief and maturity changed Biden, but there was more. Trump “happened, too,” he wrote, “providing the country with an example of hubris so monumental—and self-fascination so malignant—that any sane and sensitive observer would recoil from it, look for traces of those toxins in himself and purge them, especially if volunteering to be the antidote to that egomania.”

If he’s right, then it’s conceivable that 2020 could prove to be a turning point in our definition of good political leadership—and good business leadership, too.  Marilyn Gist, author of a new book, The Extraordinary Power of Leader Humility (Berrett-Koehler Publisher, 2020), believes the need to exile arrogant and autocratic leaders is just as urgent in the private sector—where the needs of various stakeholders are as conflicting and complex as they are in politics.

Her book couldn’t have arrived at a better time.

Making management more democratic

Gist, professor emerita of management and former executive director of the Center of Leadership Formation at Seattle University, is one of many scholars who have studied leaders who are collaborative and modest rather than top-down and self-aggrandizing. For at least two decades, some theorists have been talking about the real risks associated with arrogant leaders whose unearned faith in their own ability inspires admiration, and the benefits of elevating leaders who approach the job with far less ego.

But the evolution away from command-and-control management, Gist says, has been slow. Leading with humility is still “not the dominant model,” she tells Quartz. Indeed, people continue to mistakenly equate dictatorial or shaman-like personalities with effectiveness, and humbleness with meekness, ignoring the lessons from CEOs who have quietly pushed firms to outperform without becoming household names.

“We often think about leaders needing to be strong and decisive and to take risks and deal with uncertainty. And all of those things are true, but they don’t operate in a vacuum,” Gist says. “They operate through people, they have many different stakeholder groups, and essentially have relationships with all of them, whether those are good, bad, or indifferent.”

Gist’s book begins with a definition of what leading with humility means: “the tendency to feel and regard others’ dignity.” In government, it’s easy to see how that might be applied to leaders who focus on serving both the middle class and the marginalized, or to forming protocols that guide the way the government responds to families who seek asylum at your border. At a company, it can mean seeking out the voices of rank-and-file employees, paying people fairly, ensuring a living wage, avoiding incentives and perks that incentivize the wrong behaviors or overly reward top management, and understanding that people who have had different life experiences from your own have something to teach you.

Humility from a leader and senior management is necessary for inclusion policies to feel real, the book explains.

“Dignity implies that each person is worthy of honor and respect for who he or she is, regardless of status or accomplishment,” Gist writes. “Because dignity refers to intrinsic human worth, it can neither be earned nor taken away. Still, a person’s dignity can be violated when behaviors of others fail to recognize and honor it.” Those violations of dignity, whether gross or subtle, are far more dangerous when they come from someone with power, she says.

How to become a leader with humility

The book weaves in snippets from her interviews with 12 CEOs who have been lauded by employees or customers for running a company where people feel trusted and respected. These include Alan Mulally, former CEO of Ford Motor Company; Roger Ferguson, president and CEO of the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association (TIAA); Sally Jewell, former CEO of REI and former US secretary of the Interior; and Jim Sinegal, co-founder and former CEO of Costco.

Gist uses the interviews and other research to inform her prescriptions for leading with humility, something she believes can be learned and developed, when the right foundation (“reasonable self-awareness and openness to growth,” she writes) exists.

For some leaders, especially those who come from outsider groups, humility may come more naturally, Gist’s book suggest. Two of her interviewees, TIAA’s Ferguson and Orlando Ashford, former president of Holland America Lines, are Black, and Phyllis Campbell, chairwoman of JPMorgan Chase Northwest, is an Asian American woman. All came to their work keenly aware that people who have been excluded or ignored have a lot to offer.

But, as appears to be true of Biden, life experience also can humble a person. Another interviewee of Gist’s, former Mayo Clinic president and CEO John Noseworthy, illustrates this with his observation that as a doctor and “as a neurologist, specifically,” he writes, “I have seen the courage of patients and families in dealing with complex, confusing, and often tragic illnesses. I’ve come to realize the limitations we have in being able to help, and that builds humility.”

Gist’s book is not an attempt to develop yet another leadership theory, she told Quartz. (Indeed some management study critics say we already place too much focus on leadership, contributing to the idea that they alone can save an organization and making the job all the more appealing to narcissists, no matter what leadership theory is being touted.) Rather, she proposes a framework for thinking about humility through three questions people often ask, or wish they could ask, of leaders: Who are you? Where are we going? Do you see me?

“Do you see me?” may be the most important among the queries, Gist has found, as it speaks most directly to a person’s dignity. And when the answer is yes, she argues, people feel encouraged and excited about the work they do.

Using research and real-life examples from her panels of leaders, Gist offers specific steps leaders can take to lead with sensitivity and empathy, and questions they can ask themselves to monitor their own progress. “The principal contribution I believe I’m making is to define leader humility in a behavioral way, and one that most people can really wrap their minds around,” Gist tells Quartz.

A cultural sea change

Whether it’s because of worsening inequality or a wider awareness of how much injustice some groups have endured, and the pandemic bringing all of this into focus, the time is ripe for a renewed emphasis on the key message of the book.

Arguably it was a message the world was ready even before this year, evident in the nascent rise of social movements like Black Lives Matter, in the increase in employee activism against corporate ethical lapses, or even in global cultural touchstones, like the breakthrough Korean film Parasite, about class and striving in Seoul.

There may have been more tolerance for top-down leadership a decade ago, says Gist. By now, however, people are tired of seeing caste systems harden within companies. Socially conscious young people now entering the workforce, especially, says Gist, aren’t going to stand for leaders who ignore their demands to respect human rights and equality, whether as employees or as consumers.

History also suggests that Trump’s defeat could hasten a change in corporate culture. In post-World War II America, in the wake of the destruction wrought by leaders like Hitler and Mussolini, companies were especially disinclined to seek CEOs with messianic complexes. The power-hungry were seen as too threatening—at least until the 1980s, when the pendulum swung the other way again.

Now, we see a fresh focus on stakeholder capitalism (as an ideal, at least), and calls to expand business school curricula to incorporate more notions about how capitalism could work, and broadening support for raising the minimum wage. It all suggests that we’re perhaps returning to a place where openness and a willingness to build consensus through democratic processes will be welcomed. That’s an environment that ought to make humility an honorable trait in leaders once again.