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Article: Q&A on the Book Humble Leadership

MMS Founder

Article originally posted on InfoQ. Visit InfoQ

Key Takeaways

  • Leadership is implementing something new and better which can take place anywhere in the organization, not just from formal positions or between roles  
  • Leadership works best (if it succeeds at all) when there is mutual trust
  • Mutual trust is established by leader and follower getting to know each other on a more personal level
  • In an effective group, leadership will come from different members at different times as needed
  • Humble leadership creates openness and trust by personizing relationships in the working group

The book Humble Leadership by Edgar and Peter Schein explores how building personal relationships and trust gives way to leadership that enables better information flow and self-management. The authors argue that we already possess the skill to form personal relations, and suggest using them to build and strengthen relationships with the people we lead and follow.

InfoQ readers can download a sample of Humble Leadership.

InfoQ interviewed Edgar and Peter Schein about humble leadership and the role of trust in leadership, the skills that leaders should possess, the kind of obstacles leaders find on their path when they choose to pursue humble leadership and how to deal with them, and how humble leadership can support self organization and self-managed teams.

InfoQ: Why did you write this book?

Edgar Schein: I have always written about culture and leadership, with most of the emphasis on culture. Partnering with my son, who has been a leader, enabled me to focus on leadership and give voice to my concept of leadership.

Peter Schein: This book reflects many years of observing and experiencing how life in organizations has changed over the last generation. We are very optimistic that the new generation of leaders are driven by more humanistic goals.  This is our first effort to describe this transition and characterize what leadership means in this new “living system” model of organizations.

InfoQ: For whom is this book intended?

Peter Schein: Anyone at any level of any organization who wants to feel good about going to work everyday, leading by creating open and trusting relationships.

Edgar Schein:  Top executives, or it will be useless in the long run.

InfoQ: What is humble leadership?

Edgar and Peter Schein: This is how we described it in the chapter “The Implications of What We Call “Level 2” Relationships at Work”: 

Organizations today are doing all kinds of experiments in how work is defined and are showing great flexibility in how roles and authority are allocated. What we see in these experiments is that they encourage relationships that are more personal. Bosses, direct reports, team members, and resources from other teams are making it a point to get to know each other at a more personal level, fostering more openness and, in time, more trust and the psychological safety to speak up and be heard.

In a Level 2 relationship, I convey that “I see you.” This is not necessarily “I like you” or “I want to be your friend,” or “Let’s get our families together,” but I let you know through my words, demeanor, and body language that I am aware of your total presence, that in this relationship we are working together and are dependent on each other, are trying to trust each other, and should each try to see the other as more than a fellow employee, or associate, or team member, but as a whole person. By conveying that “I see you”, we are also conveying that we will not allow “professional distance” to separate us; we are forming a personal-working bond that will not tolerate obfuscation or deception. Seeing each other as whole persons is primarily a choice that we can make. We already know how to be personal in our social and private lives. Humble Leadership involves making that conscious choice in our work lives. 

Six Principles of Humble Leadership

  • Humble Leadership builds on Level 2 personal relationships that depend on and foster openness and trust.
  • If Level 2 relationships do not already exist in the workgroup, the emergent humble leader’s first job is to develop trust and openness in the workgroup.
  • In a Level 2 workgroup Humble Leadership emerges by enabling whoever has pertinent information or expertise to speak up and improve whatever the group is seeking to accomplish.
  • The process of creating and maintaining Level 2 relationships requires a learning mindset, cooperative attitudes, and skills in interpersonal and group dynamics.
  • An effective group dealing with complex tasks in a volatile environment will need to evolve such mindsets, attitudes, and skills in all of its members.
  • Therefore, Humble Leadership is as much a group phenomenon as an individual behavior.

Humble leadership is creating personal relationships in order to facilitate doing something new and better.

InfoQ: What role does trust play in leadership? How can leaders increase trust?

Edgar Schein: Trust implies being able to anticipate how others will react. That implies getting to know each other more personally. The leader and follower must be able to trust each other.

Peter Schein: Another way to answer this question is to consider the alternative — A transactional leadership system based on metrics (and transparency to institutionalize control) may leave little room for open communication within and between team members.  Such a transactional throughput machine — a common image for a modern organization — may efficiently process inputs into outputs+profit, but what happens when the market or the work changes, as it does with increasing frequency? The transactional system may create very powerful individual incentives (essentially profit sharing), but competition between individuals may then become the dominant mode rather than cooperation within and between teams.  Trust may not really be needed in the transactional throughput machine, until the organizational “machine” needs to adapt or change.  Trust brings resiliency and synergy, which are becoming increasingly important in our VUCA world.

InfoQ: What skills should leaders possess?

Edgar Schein: The ability to form personal relationships. These are not new skills described in lists and programs. These are skills that virtually all of us already have if we have grown up in families, gone to schools, worked in stores, worked in offices.  One of our main points in writing this book is to say that humble leadership is not about following a prescription and learning new skills; it is about using the skills people already have to build and strengthen relationships with the people they lead and follow.

Peter Schein: The willingness to accept that, everyday, the leader is vulnerable to what he or she does not know.  Willingness to embrace this vulnerability and draw out vital information from every voice in the room is a critical skill going forward. Compassion is critical too, and it can be considered critical to survival – I express compassion not only to help others but also so that I can convince others that I am dependent on them to share what they know.

Earlier InfoQ interviewed David Marquet on applying intent-based leadership in agile

David Marquet: The idea behind leader-leader is that each person is thought of, and thinks of himself or herself, as a leader. That means they make decisions and take responsibility for those decisions. At the same time, everyone is a following of the principles and purpose of the organization, including the “leader.” This differs from many organizations where the idea is I follow you and you follow the boss and the boss decides what is best.

Agile is essentially building a leader-leader model in software organizations. I believe Agile methodologies have a lot to offer to management. At the same time, when the agile cell bumps into the bureaucracy of the organization, we help by instilling leader-leader practices in the remainder of the organization.

InfoQ: In your book you explained how David Marquet applied humble leadership. Can you elaborate?

Edgar Schein: He figured out who was influential in the submarine. He then asked those people  whether they were satisfied with how things were functioning. They had to decide and make proposals. They became accountable.   

InfoQ: What kind of obstacles do leaders find on their path when they choose to pursue humble leadership?

Edgar Schein: People wanting to maintain formal transactional relationships and social distance (“professional distance”).

Peter Schein: Other leaders, reports, peers and colleagues who still maintain a “professional distance” based upon low-trust, individual results, zero-sum, “heroic” leadership represent the ultimate obstacle for humble leaders.  A leader who is pursuing a high trust, openness, and high psychological safety approach may be derailed or undermined by narcissistic, self-interested and self-aggrandizing managers who are pursuing personal gain, believing that concealing is a better way to achieve individual reward in the organization. However, we think the days are numbered for the heroic and purely self-interested leader.  In Humble Leadershipwe propose that the heroic leader will underperform the humble leader of the future: 

In innovation-driven industries, where “VUCA” is accepted reality (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity), we believe that as a company matures, the isolated, heroic leader will ultimately suffer from lack of complete information to make the right decisions. We have argued that what distinguishes the humble leader, at any level of the organization, is talent at developing optimal “Level 2 relationships” that seamlessly provide more and better information flow required to innovate at high pace.

An individualistic, competitive, destiny-is-in-your-hands-alone mindset limits a leader’s ability to handle uncertainty and volatility, since no individual will be able to process the volume of data nor assimilate all the dynamic inputs that are vital to effective strategy.  In the future, we see humble leaders distinguishing themselves with the ability to “read the room,” both the situation and the people involved, then to set the direction to something new and better given the volatile circumstances, and then to strengthen the Level 2 relationships that ensure complete information required to enable organizational flexibility to never stop adapting.

InfoQ: How can leaders deal with these obstacles?

Edgar Schein: Being more personal themselves and showing that trust and openness build better communication, better problem solving and innovation.

Peter Schein: Reflection and mindfulness — It is so easy to let strategy, tactics, deliverables, planning, quarterly chaos, and so on, dominate our work, every day.  Take the time to ask what’s really going on with your peers, reports, boards, leaders. Spend a lot of time (it may be too much to ask for as much time) on the “how” of things, the processes that create progress (how your groups arrive at decisions), not just the “what” (the tactical moves that resulted from decisions). 

InfoQ: How can humble leadership support self organization and self-managed teams?

Edgar Schein: By recognizing that leadership is a shifting role and avoiding formalization, helping the group to be a good group by learning group dynamic skills.

Peter Schein: Consider ways that you can normalize group incentives.  We see all too often how groups and teams are formed and praised but incentive systems remain individual.  Self-managed teams may not really behave as adaptable, autonomous decision and production authorities until they sort out how to incentivize collective behavior. The paradox here is that the move to self-managed teams (such as in experiments in “holocracy”) can become such formal and self-conscious efforts at self-management that they trigger different role behaviors as much or more than they create new behavioral, ethical or moral norms. The challenge may be, therefore, to be clear about the goal of creating self-managed teams — Is it to accelerate efficient decision-making, or is it to create a culture-shift toward a “level 2” high trust, high openness way of working?  The two may not be the same.  The question might therefore be inverted; how can experiments with self-managed teams help reinforce a culture of humble leadership?

About the Authors

Edgar H. Scheinis Professor Emeritus from the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management.  He’s a pioneer in organizational studies, organizational culture and leadership, process consulting, and career development.  Ed’s contributions to the practice of O.D. date back to the early 1960s and continue with the recent publication of Organizational Culture and Leadership 5th edition, and now Humble Leadership.

Peter A. Schein, co-founder of who brings 30 years of hands-on experience in large and small companies leading growth initiatives in Silicon Valley. He co-authored Humble Leadership.

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