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The Leadership Pond Usually Isn’t Stocked with Humble Fish

A big theme in Lean management is the idea of “leading with humility.”

The first chapter of an excellent book written by Toyota employees and leaders from Georgetown, Kentucky is all about leading with humility. This must be important of that’s the first chapter.

Having leaders who are humble means not having all of the answers, leading by asking questions, leading “as if you have no power.”

So here’s one of those areas where it’s easier to describe “here’s what Lean looks like” than it is to say “here’s how you get Lean.”

How does an organization “get Lean” if they don’t have humble leaders as a starting point?

I thought of an expression last week when talking to somebody about this.

iStock 000011036893Small 540x359 The Leadership Pond Usually Isnt Stocked with Humble Fish lean

“The leadership pond in most organizations usually isn’t stocked full of humble fish.”

Can we send leaders to a training class on how to be humble? Can we read books The Leadership Pond Usually Isnt Stocked with Humble Fish lean about humility?

Does anybody offer “humility belts” of various colors?

How do we create a culture of humble leadership? Is it possible if we don’t already have it?

I humbly ask these questions. What do you think?


mark graban lean blog The Leadership Pond Usually Isnt Stocked with Humble Fish leanAbout LeanBlog.org: Mark Graban is a consultant, author, and speaker in the “lean healthcare” methodology. Mark is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as the new Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. Mark is also the VP of Customer Success for the technology company KaiNexus.

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20 Comments on "The Leadership Pond Usually Isn’t Stocked with Humble Fish"

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  1. Mark Graban
    Twitter:
    says:

    From @TomSedge on Twitter:

    “Servant leadership needs to become much more widespread. For that we need some high-profile media examples (icons of humility)”

  2. Greg Beckman says:

    Seek to understand before being understood.

  3. Mark Graban
    Twitter:
    says:

    From Patricia Langdon on LinkedIn:

    “Humility can be an awesome trait. Can it be taught to non humble ones later in life. ? The question remains. It would take full cooperation from all to achieve the final goal. Then maybe it would ‘catch on’. An organization that can gain this leadership quality would gain respect and more authority from employees. It would be a perfect theory to explore. ….Needs to start with raising our children to respect and say thank you and be humble. Our older population 50-100 yr olds are called ‘old school’ but for most are more humble. Just thinking out loud.”

  4. Chad Walters
    Twitter:
    says:

    San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich admits that he’ll go into in-game timeouts and tell his team “I’ve got nothing.” He is the de facto dictator of the on-court team and instead of the typical do-it-my-way or this-is-the-answer-now-execute-my-directive he empowers his team to do what they think will be most successful. They all know the objective, they all have practiced the game for years, so it’s not like they aren’t experts in their own right. Maybe that’s why they’ve won multiple NBA titles – Popovich and his three star players during his tenure are all relatively quiet, humble, but extremely effective.
    Chad Walters recently posted..Dr. Frank Jobe and Kaizen Thinking for Tommy John SurgeryMy Profile

  5. Carl Homa says:

    “For that we need some high-profile media examples (icons of humility)”

    Although I do agree, this seems like a juxtaposition … A humble leader being high profile in the media because the leader does not know all the answers. Kind of an “anti-talking head”
    Carl Homa recently posted..Great Teachers Don’t TeachMy Profile

  6. Doc says:

    Mark, to mix metaphors, you have identified the very shallow end of the leadership pool and tried to dive in…there does seem to be a drought that some seem to miss with the two standards of ‘respect’ and ‘continuous improvement’.

    Old methods (and what may have led to the current leadership positioning) die hard…and usually the old methods were ‘git r’ done’ at all costs, which seems to be the antithesis of your point.

    Engaging in Humility, Respect, Appreciative Inquiry, Unconditional Positive Regard, all much easier talked than walked.

  7. Mark Graban
    Twitter:
    says:

    I can make some ironic coffee mugs that say:

    “World’s Most Humble Leader”

    See and buy here :-)
    Mark Graban recently posted..What I’ve Been Reading Lately: Not Doing Kaizen, Engaged Sailors, Etc.My Profile

  8. Mark Graban
    Twitter:
    says:

    More comments from LinkedIn:

    James Mark Franklin (2400+)
    Timely subject matter Mark. Unfortunately, hubris has a kissing cousin who is not self-aware. The nature of hubristic expression follows a tandem loss of contact with reality, not just an overestimation or exaggeration of one’s competencies. Some discover greater humility by knowing enough, others when hurting enough. I learned a little more about humility from Pierce Brosnan’s character in the 2006 post civil war movie Seraphim Falls. The hubris of Liam Neeson’s character cost him the lives of four of his hired hands and almost his own. Ultimately, the two men humbly walked away both winners in life. Humility does not have to always agree with another to be agreeable.

    Amber Cooper
    Some of my best leaders have been the most humble. Leaders are not only teachers, but they are co-learners and colleagues. They are as perfectly imperfect as the rest of us.

    Brad Beauvais, PhD, MBA, MA, MBBc, FACHE
    Reminds me of the work by Jim Collins regarding Level 4 (egotistical) versus Level 5 (humble) leaders. Still true today…

    Carol Laub
    I don’t think it can be taught.
    Mark Graban recently posted..Some People Who Are Making a Difference for Patient SafetyMy Profile

  9. R says:

    Specific skills, such as inquiry and active listening, can be learned through practice to help develop capabilities to support leading with humility. Like any other skill, there must be motivation, desire, commitment, and coaching. One who is overly arrogant or lacking self-awareness may be unlikely to have the desire and commitment to acquiring these skills.

  10. Nick says:

    Interesting discussion. I guess my question would be, can you fake humility? And if you can, is that enough?

    • Bart S says:

      I don’t think you can fake humility in the workplace. For those lacking humility there are just too many opportunities to expose themselves. For example, the first moment of crisis (and there will be many in any transformation) the non-humble leader will look to blame and shame.

  11. John M says:

    Humulity cannot be learned… it can however be accepted. It is a gift. A person can be humbled by circumstance and depending on subsequent choices that humbling can leave a person beaten down, but that does not necessarily equate to humility, more defeated perhaps. Or the experience may begin to change a person internally, but that is another subject.

    Sevant Leadership is easy to say, but if serious we would say selfless leadership and that is hard to come by. Politicians are, supposed to be, public servants (servant leaders)… but not so
    much anymore.

    As far as writings concerning humilty, it has been written that Moses was the most humble man who ever lived. Perhaps a study of his life as an example of humility would benefit the reader?

    Servant Leadership is a lofty and good goal, but filled with continous self sacrafice.

  12. Mark Jaben says:

    It is possibly about seeing ‘humble’ as a benefit. People will gladly do something when they see it is in their interest to do so. Since our brain is wired to keep doing what has ‘worked’, it takes some credible evidence/experience before it will consider otherwise. Because of the affect of power/control on diminishing mirror neuron activity, leaders are less inclined to seek this out or be aware.

    Openess to the possibility is likely the first step that has to occur. And what that takes will be different for different people. Create a ‘safe’ experience for the leader to gain that ‘credible evidence.’

    So the clue for the leader lies in resistance. Rather than complain about it, embrace it as the path to find out what doesn’t work, so as a leader you can begin to find out what does, not what you think does, but what actually does work.

    The openness to this ‘respect’ for the views of others increases mirror neuron activity, and creates a ‘safe’ space and a ‘safe’ experience for the leader to gain that ‘credible evidence.’

  13. Suz Kaprich says:

    Humility can be misinterpreted as a lack of confidence. Something a leader can’t afford to display, how do you walk that tightrope?

    • Mark Graban
      Twitter:
      says:

      I think lack of confidence gets interpreted as lack of confidence.

      Humility is often accompanied by strength. It takes strength and confidence for a leader to say, “I don’t know the answer… what do you think?” to an employee.

      Jim Collins and the idea of a “Level 5″ leader was mentioned already…

      “Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve”

      Collins argues that the key ingredient that allows a company to become great is having a Level 5 leader: an executive in whom genuine personal humility blends with intense professional will. To learn that such CEOs exist still comes as a pleasant shock. But while the idea may sound counterintuitive today, it was downright heretical when Collins first wrote about it—the corporate scandals in the United States hadn’t broken out, and almost everyone believed that CEOs should be charismatic, larger-than-life figures. Collins was the first to blow that belief out of the water.

  14. Mark Graban
    Twitter:
    says:

    I know the post is about managers and leaders in an organization, but some Lean consultants come across as cocky or arrogant.

    It always strikes me when a Lean person seems “braggy.” The best Toyota folks (and Lean folks, in general) who I’ve learned from are exceeding humble.

    One Lean healthcare consultant (not a Toyota guy) was quoted in the news as saying:

    “If you’re not dead (in 20 years), you’re going to be in one of your health-care systems here in bed, with a tube up your ass and one down your throat. You’re going to be saying to yourself, ‘My God, I wish I would have asked [me] to come in and help improve my care,’ ” he recalls saying before leaving one meeting. He thought he’d never hear from them again.

    If I were the hospital, I might have not called back again because of that attitude. And this was the consultant recalling what he said, not somebody else saying it about him.

    It doesn’t seem very Lean to act like you’re God’s gift to Lean or to a client.
    Mark Graban recently posted..A Whiteboard Accident Waiting to Happen – How to Error Proof?My Profile

  15. Mark Graban
    Twitter:
    says:

    Interesting article:

    Do Business Schools Breed Arrogance?

    As an MBA graduate, I’d answer “probably” although it’s a question of the “arrogant” self selecting into elite business schools vs. what the schools reinforce.

    Similar questions get asked about medical schools, too, by the way.
    Mark Graban recently posted..Is it Lean’s Fault or the Old Management System’s?My Profile

  16. Mark Graban
    Twitter:
    says:

    I happened to see a video that talks about President Abraham Lincoln and how he felt humility was the most important attribute… and that humility does NOT mean passivity or meekness. The humility comes from your own confidence and that you’re not threatened by the ideas or input of others.

    http://youtu.be/1cEq7ibL49A?t=2m58s

    If you feel the need to “throw your weight around,” they don’t have appropriate humility.

    Skip to 2:58 if you like:


    Mark Graban recently posted..Article about Lean in Two Sioux City Health SystemsMy Profile

  17. Mark Graban
    Twitter:
    says:

    Here’s an article about CEO humility (see point 2 in the middle of what’s otherwise a pretty worthless article):

    The more humble the CEO, the happier the top- and mid-level managers.”

    From the piece… and I think this definitely applies in the U.S., not just Eastern cultures.

    The more humble the CEO, the happier the top- and mid-level managers. Or this dynamic seems to hold in Eastern societies or those that value collectivism, at least. A study, led by a business professor at Arizona State University, interviewed CEOs of 63 private Chinese companies to assess the presence of leadership traits associated with Confucianism, such as self-awareness, openness to feedback, focus on the greater good and others’ welfare, and opposition to dwelling on oneself. Researchers also surveyed 1,000 top- and mid-level managers who worked with the CEOs. CEOs’ humility was measured on a 1-6 scale, and the mean fell at 4.47, meaning most of the CEOs had humble tendencies.

    When the CEO was measured as humble, top-level managers reported more meaning and confidence in their work, greater desire to participate in decision-making and a greater sense of autonomy. Top-level managers also were more motivated to collaborate, make joint decisions and share information. Middle managers reported feeling more engaged and committed to their jobs when the top boss was more humble. Since the study was based on Chinese companies, it may merit further exploration on how or whether these findings are applicable in Western societies like the United States, which are more individualistic.

    Do you agree?
    Mark Graban recently posted..The One Where a Dog Reviews the Strategy Deployment Metrics WallMy Profile

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