Accomplishing the extraordinary with ordinary people - Leading with humility

Subikash Roy

When we think about leaders or leadership the attributes that come to our mind are probably proactivity, fearlessness, strategic, energetic, charismatic, knowledgeable and inspirational etc. Most of us surprisingly don’t associate humility with leadership qualities. Many leaders when asked what they thought about humility as a leadership trait felt that humility is a sign of weakness and submission. Yet I consider humility as self-confidence without arrogance; humility really exudes strength and is probably the need of the hour today. Let’s see why…

Shifting of Management Paradigms

"I believe the first test of a truly great man is in his humility" - John Ruskin

During the early 1900’s when Henry Ford first introduced Model T as the people’s car, the era of mass production was initiated. It was a sellers’ market, where the seller dictated specifications of the product to the customer. Thus products had long life cycles, and the leader was the supreme commander, considered to know everything in the organization. This led to the evolution of the Command and Control Style of Management where discipline was the major management focus. The key player was the middle manager whose objective was to churn out the required numbers as per the standard. Various types of control methods and techniques including automation and assembly line concepts emerged. Thus over time Managers developed a mind-set to treat people as extended machines.

After the Oil Crisis of 1972, many businesses began to seek answers to maintaining profitability during the recessive business cycles. The world looked towards Japanese companies some of whom, like Toyota, came out of the recession very quickly. The paradigm then shifted to Customer Focus where the customer set standards for the business. Focus shifted directly to the shop floor; the happening place of the operations. Suddenly, the key players became shop floor workers and the concept of continuous improvement through Kaizen and other techniques evolved. This ushered the beginning of a Participatory Style of Management which required the participation of all people in teams. So this also meant empowering workers and the shop floor management which hitherto was taboo. However, in the West, reliance was still on implementing tools and techniques rather than developing people throughout the organization to think and solve problems independently.


Now, with the advent of Lean manufacturing, mass production has taken a totally new dimension. With small batches and higher variety, shorter product cycles and continuously changing technological trends, it has become almost impossible for any one person to know everything. The continuously changing market conditions need to be translated to the shop floor very rapidly. This necessarily means that businesses must be able to adapt and absorb almost immediately. It is, what I call, a Collaborative Style of Management between management and shop floor personnel to effectively and efficiently deploy and utilize resources. Collaborative Management calls for high level of trust amongst people in the organization. It requires Top Management to visualize and pursue a common goal for the organization with humility. We evaluate below some of the attributes of successful collaborative style leaders.

Understanding Oneself Objectively

For a leader to be able to lead with humility, he must know his strengths and weaknesses. The leader must be able to perceive the situation accurately and respond with the most appropriate decision as quickly as possible. Leaders who do not understand themselves deeply and objectively would limit their organization’s long term business growth. This is because they cannot supplement their strengths and weaknesses and that of their people to affect the common goals of the organization. Therefore, even though they may be very competent in terms of knowledge and skills they would lack the maturity to make integrated judgments when confronted with a problem. Leaders must understand that they are not infallible. A leader, who continuously assesses himself, is aware of his own imperfections and at the same time he is determined to be accurate in his evaluation of the situation.

Trusting People by Seeing Them Positively

When leaders become aware of their own imperfections and appreciate the strengths of their people, they will think of various ways to engage them with their strengths to achieve the common organization goal. Leaders must first believe that people are capable to perform; this is the basic principle on which trust is generated. Leaders must show trust towards people by their actions. They must understand that people are more receptive when their strengths are challenged. People are generally more willing to cooperate when you seek their advice than when you try to tell them how to do everything.

Everyone is equally important to achieve organization’s goals

Leaders must learn the art of listening empathetically to people rather than listening to react. Leaders must continuously seek out the positive qualities in each person rather than find faults with him. When a leader understands positive strengths of people, he/ she would not be apprehensive to assign them appropriate responsibilities. When a leader thinks negatively about his people it affects his own performance because he would be constantly worrying about the outcomes of his delegated tasks and lose focus on his responsibilities at hand. People are perfectly capable of learning to do the job they are assigned to do.

Cultivating Consistency of Thinking and Behaviour

How can leaders educate people and help them to grow? Educating your employees is very similar to parenting your child. Parents who have firm convictions will be consistent in their behaviour and actions towards their children; similarly, top management also needs to have firm and objective views on society, business and work-life balance to influence people under their supervision and thus prepare them to be future leaders.

When senior executives are consistent in their thinking and behaviour, their subordinates will trust them and follow them as their role models. When the leader has full conviction in the company’s mission, he will automatically communicate by his actions and behaviour. When his subordinates see this change, they will understand that in the interest of long term survival they must change accordingly. They will be motivated to work harder to realize their common goal.

Establishing Continuous Two-way Communication Flow

Without harmonious relationships among employees and between employees and management, it would be impossible to establishCollaborative Style of Management and use it effectively. It is very important to establish systems for continuous transparent flow of communication. As much as it is important for leaders to communicate downwards up to the workers, it is equally important that the leader receives transparent communication bottom up also. To effectively establish bottom-up communication, subordinates and workers must be able to trust the leaders. The leader must be able to proactively listen to the criticism from the bottom and use it constructively to efficiently affect the organization’s goal. Bottom-up communication is far more important than top-down because they are closest to the Gemba and thus to the customer. Flow of ideas and suggestions must be encouraged all the way up to the highest echelons of management.

Accessibility & Involvement

Accessibility of a leader is very important not only for the immediate superior but up to the topmost leader of the management. When a subordinate feels that his superior is inaccessible when he needs his services the most, he is demotivated and tends to bypass him. Rather than view it negatively, the leader must understand that it is a sign that he may need to change and correct course. It is the initiation of self-reflection by a good leader.

Empathetic listening and cross-communication from employees is a sign of a leader’s involvement. He must be receptive to all suggestions by people because they may contain certain vital information for improvement. Therefore, leaders must encourage people to give suggestions and ideas. When leaders demean and criticize ideas publicly it hurts people’s egos and they may never give suggestions again.

Synchronizing Growth with People

Today’s digital world and the internet have put all resources to us at the click of a button. We have all information about our business and that of our competitors. So what differentiates us from others in our business? It is the ability of an organization to adapt rapidly to changes; which is only achievable through people. Today’s business environment challenges the ability of leaders to channelize people’s knowledge and skills towards achieving organizational goals by the most efficient means. Therefore, leaders must use their experience and walk that extra mile, to continuously communicate, coach and mentor people to share knowledge and skills mutually. Leaders must understand that new learning also requires unlearning; and there is inertia in unlearning because we are pushed out of our comfort zones.

Managers must introspect and realize whether they are still trying to implement Lean systems with the command and control type of management. Unfortunately, even today, many leaders cannot come to terms with the fact that delegating decision making at the source would bring out the best in people and develop them into powerful problem solvers. This will help build a foundation on which the future of organizations can be built.

Therefore, leaders must continuously reflect, coach and mentor their subordinates to bring out the extraordinary from ordinary people in their organizations.