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 focused heavily on leading with humility. This must be important if that's the first chapter.

Having humble leaders means not having all of the answers, leading by asking questions, and 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 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.

“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 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?

What do you think? Please scroll down (or click) to post a comment. Or please share the post with your thoughts on LinkedIn – and follow me or connect with me there.

Did you like this post? Make sure you don't miss a post or podcast — Subscribe to get notified about posts via email daily or weekly.

Check out my latest book, The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation:

Get New Posts Sent To You

Select list(s):
Previous articleA Lean Guy Reads Inc.: Lean Handbags and Micro Failures
Next articleA Whiteboard Accident Waiting to Happen – How to Error Proof?
Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. 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.”

  2. 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.

  3. “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”

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

    • 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.’

    • 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

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

    Skip to 2:58 if you like:

  11. 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?

  12. Do as I do, I hire employees that are smarter then me, hire employees that listen better then I do, hire employees that work harder then i do, I share my vision with them of what the future should look like (World Class vs Third World) I share past successful improvement projects and improvement tools I used, Then let them roll, support their mistakes and then celebrate their successes, have fun, and showcase them with the our senior leaders without then need to take any credit for their successful projects.

  13. I heard one definition of humility as being, “courteously respectful towards others.” That resonates with Toyota and Lean’s approach of respect. My mentor, John Maxwell, often talks about serving and adding value to others which I believe relies on a humble approach. For me, the missing link with Lean, Operational Excellence, Continuous Improvement or any other word we choose to use, is servant leadership that begins with leadership development. It can be developed but not easily or quickly.

    Much like lean, it involves a culture change that has to begin with behavior change that leads to character change. A large part of my focus over the past 4 years has been on leadership development. To truly connect and engage today with a meaningful “why” behind the change, courtesy and respect are needed. People don’t know we care unless we authentically show we care and that’s difficult without a humble approach. In addition, my favorite book talks about “pride coming before the fall.” When we make it about others without a pretense of having to receive something in return, something magical happens. The freedom to change and if we don’t change, then we’ll be changed by the change. Working to develop a team of humble lean leaders is now a passion for us.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.