I recently attended a celebratory event honoring one of my longtime colleagues — an entrepreneur turned educator — recognizing his visionary contributions to fostering the entrepreneurial mindset in thousands of young people. While he was lauded by speakers for his many fine attributes, a predominant theme emerged that focused on his exceptional personal humility.
One of his students, now a successful entrepreneur, commented that the teacher’s humility fostered curiosity and inquisitiveness in the students he mentored. As an educator, he did not pretend to have all the answers. Instead, he served as a role model, encouraging experimentation, exploration, problem solving and shared learning in an open and inspirational environment. The student learned that answers are often yet to be discovered and therefore cannot be taught. Each entrepreneurial trailblazer must draw upon his or her own imagination to find the answers. This former student emphasized that humility is indeed an essential ingredient of effective mentoring for entrepreneurs.
The quality of humility emanating from a leader gives space for individuals to shine, and therefore, for entire organizations to thrive. This is especially true when humility is coupled with a strong will to succeed, according to author and researcher Jim Collins in his well-known book “Good to Great” (2001). Collins developed the Hierarchy of Leadership, with Level 5 representing the pinnacle of leadership for those who demonstrate an unusual “duality: modest and willful, humble and fearless.”
Level 5 leadership “builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.” It is not that Level 5 leaders do not possess ambition or ego but rather that they laser focus their ambitions on the organization they are building and not on themselves or their own personal advancement. Their aptitude for doing what it takes to get the job done inspires others to work hard as members of a resolute team that is focused on achieving a shared goal.
Within organizations, a culture of humility has other related benefits, as well. Humility contributes to an atmosphere of mutual learning among colleagues and conveys the critical message that no one person has all of the answers. When a leader has the confidence to be humble and learn alongside his or her team members, everyone can be more open in their communication. This allows them to pose important questions and explore a wide range of ideas, allowing innovation to happen.
Trust builds and healthy team interactions are promoted. Humility is the underpinning that creates an organization-wide learning culture and, in turn, leads to deeper engagement and investment in the work required to reach audacious goals.
This type of learning culture, grounded in humility, is especially important in an entrepreneurial environment. Understanding that there is no one right answer and that teams are constantly in discovery mode adds to the energy and richness of the experience. Learning from failure becomes the norm. How teams interact through brainstorming, transparency and inclusion creates routines and safe spaces for idea generation and refinement. Humility is a key ingredient of leadership that contributes significantly to fertile ground for innovation to flourish. ●
Deborah D. Hoover is President and CEO of The Burton D. Morgan Foundation