A captain stood in front of our college ROTC class during the waning months of the Vietnam war. He said, “A number of young men – just a little older than you – were shipped to Vietnam as brand new 2nd lieutenants and placed in charge of battle-tested soldiers. Thinking that their superior rank made them more knowledgeable, several of these young lieutenants immediately began issuing orders that the troops realized would place their mission and their very lives in grave danger. Even after severe warnings from the experienced veterans, a few of these young officers insisted on having their way. As a result, some of these young lieutenants lost their lives – killed when fragmentation grenades were tossed into their tents by their own troops.”
This captain went on to teach us the importance of recognizing the experience and knowledge of others – regardless of rank or position. Sadly, too many leaders still have not learned this lesson. They seem to feel that their position must make them the smartest person in the room.
In my previous article 1, I emphasized the need for leadership behaviors to change in the digital era. Our world has changed, and we must look at everything – including the way we lead – with fresh eyes. Graham Waller, research VP at Gartner, put it this way: “Digital business doesn’t just disrupt markets. It disrupts tried-and-true management behaviors.”2
A study3 by the Global Center for Digital Business Transformation found that leadership effectiveness in disruptive environments shares many of the same characteristics as leadership in more stable environments, with a few notable exceptions. One of those exceptions was that successful leaders in a disruptive environment are more humble.
Why Would Humility Be More Important Now?
It seems a little strange to tout humility as a distinguishing characteristic of the digital era leader. We often think of leadership as an exercise in command and control. This was important when change was relatively slow and planned efficiency was the lifeblood of good management. Strategic decision-making was done at the top of the organization directing the actions of those at the bottom. Managers did the thinking and planning while workers executed. Issues were run up the chain for a decision that then had to follow the chain back down to deploy the solution. This resulted in 85% of our employees not giving their all,4 but we thought we were efficient. Companies can no longer afford this approach. Today’s world is increasingly more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA). As a result, planned efficiency has given way to speed, agility, and innovation as the drivers of business success – and leadership.
Humble leaders recognize that they cannot achieve the speed needed for today’s success using yesterday’s command and control approach. There just isn’t time. And they realize they need more than their team’s hands – they need their minds and their hearts.
Leading with Humility
The humility of a successful digital era leader is manifest though:
- Continuous learning. The accelerating pace of change today makes it impossible to rely completely on past knowledge and experience. Successful leaders will be lifelong learners with a thirst for knowledge. While some of this learning will come from formal coursework, perhaps more will occur informally by staying abreast of what is happening outside your company in the startup community, in your industry, and beyond. Leaders realize they must constantly adjust their way of thinking, learning, and doing. This constant learning must lead to continuous improvement – always looking for ways apply this newfound knowledge to get better as an individual, as a team, and as a company.
- Actively seeking input from others. Even with a continuous learning mindset, successful leaders recognize they can never know it all. They understand that although 100% of front-line problems are known to front-line employees, executives at the highest level are aware of only a very small percentage of them – the tip of the iceberg. Many of these front-line problems may be easily overcome and could increase employee efficiency, engagement, customer loyalty, and even profitability. But because of the huge gap between senior management and the front-line, these problems are rarely surfaced. Humility can help leaders to overcome this issue.5 Simply spend time with them asking about their problems and their ideas.6 Act quickly on those requiring your help and encourage them to act on ideas they can implement themselves.
- Trusting. “Trust always affects two measurable outcomes – speed and cost. When trust goes down, speed goes down and cost goes up. This creates a trust tax. When trust goes up, speed goes up and cost goes down. This creates a trust dividend. It’s that simple, that predictable.” 7 Trust and empowerment essential to achieving the speed needed. Achieving the goal is what’s important – not how you get the job done. This means a willingness to give up an element of control – not necessarily an easy task8 Digital era leaders will ensure that everyone understands the organization’s bigger purpose, establish goals and accountability metrics, then trust others to accomplish the goal. Most will find themselves amazed by the innovative solutions and increased employee engagement that arise.
- Building & relying upon a diverse network. Every leader- and every organization – is part of a larger ecosystem. Each company has a limited amount of time and resources that can be dedicated to improving speed, agility, and innovation. But by harnessing the power of the entire ecosystem, successful digital era leaders dramatically expand these boundaries. Dion Hinchcliffe of Constellation Research put it this way: “You must let the network do the work. It has the bulk of the ideas, it self-organizes at scale, it needs only a little control and guidance, and it has all the productive capacity, no matter how large your organization.”9
If you are like me, you’ve seen far too many people claiming to be “servant leaders” simply because it has become a popular term. It reminds me of the story of a guy winning a medal for being voted “most humble”. When he went forward to receive his prize, they took the distinction away from him. We aren’t humble simply because we say we are. And truth be told, most of us (myself included) still have a lot of work to do to achieve the humility needed for complete digital era success. Let’s get with it!
1 – Bennett, Terry. “New Leadership Behaviors Needed for Digital Era Success.” Institute for Digital Transformation, 14 May 2018, www.institutefordigitaltransformation.org/new-leadership-behaviors-needed-digital-era-success/
2 – Levy, Heather Pemberton. “Remake Yourself With Six Digital Leadership Personas.” Hype Cycle Research Methodology | Gartner Inc., Gartner, Inc., 15 Oct. 2017, https://www.gartner.com/smarterwithgartner/digital_leadership_personas/
3 – Wade, Michael R., et al. “Redefining Leadership for a Digital Age.” IMD Business School, IMD, 16 Feb. 2017, https://www.imd.org/dbt/reports/redefining-leadership/
4 – Gallup, Inc. “Dismal Employee Engagement Is a Sign of Global Mismanagement.”Gallup.com, 20 Dec. 2017, http://news.gallup.com/opinion/gallup/224012/dismal-employee-engagement-sign-global-mismanagement.aspx
5 – Quintarelli, Emanuele, et al. “How Real Leaders Melt The Iceberg of Ignorance With Humility.”Corporate Rebels, https://corporate-rebels.com/iceberg-of-ignorance/
6 – Cable, Daniel M. “How Humble Leadership Really Works.” Harvard Business Review, 30 Apr. 2018, https://hbr.org/2018/04/how-humble-leadership-really-works
7 – Covey, Stephen M. R., and Rebecca R. Merrill. The Speed of Trust: the One Thing That Changes Everything. Pocket Books, 2008. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B000MGATWG/
8 – Tedder, Doug, and Cherri H. “Transformation Means Giving Up Control – Can You Handle That?” Institute for Digital Transformation, 28 Mar. 2018, www.institutefordigitaltransformation.org/transformation-means-giving-up-control-can-you-handle-that/
9 – “Let The Network Do The Work.” On Digital Strategy Dion Hinchcliffe, 5 Aug. 2014, https://dionhinchcliffe.com/2014/08/04/let-the-network-do-the-work/
About the Author:
Institute Fellow Alumnus
Terry Bennett is a partner with Fortium Partners, a nationwide team of C-suite business executives (CIOs, CTOs, CISOs), each dedicated to technology leadership – reimagined. Fortium helps companies transform IT from a costly expense into a profitable investment. Terry is a strategically-minded difference maker who has successfully transformed IT departments into dynamic organizations that are proactive, business-focused, and intent on bringing a competitive advantage. His teams are recognized for achieving the highest levels of satisfaction from those they serve. He has achieved success in startup to turnaround to mature organizations, family-owned to Global 500 companies. Terry has a special passion for helping the C-suite transform their company to achieve the speed and agility needed for success in today’s world.