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The Power of Humble Leadership

Leadership styles that focus too heavily on control and end goals can actually make it more difficult for organizations to achieve desired outcomes. Top-down, authoritarian approaches fail to motivate and engage employees. However, a more humble, servant leadership approach can help create an energized workforce that brings its best to the job.

Today we will explore humble leadership and provide look at some examples of how this approach works in practice.

The Decline of Command-and-Control

The old model of top-down, authoritative leadership is becoming increasingly outdated and counterproductive. This traditional approach relies too much on control, power, and hierarchy. It treats employees like cogs in a machine rather than human beings with unique skills and insights to contribute. However, organizations are made up of people, and people need motivation and inspiration to excel. As the business world has evolved, leaders have realized they can’t simply order their teams to be more productive, innovative or engaged. Pushing harder from the top does not work.

A 2016 Gallup study found that only 33% of U.S. employees are engaged at work. The majority are either passive or actively disengaged. This suggests the commanding leadership style focused solely on control and outcomes is failing. People don’t want to take orders all day from bosses who don’t care about their needs. Leadership requires winning hearts and minds. The answer lies in a more humble approach.

The Rise of Servant Leadership

Servant leadership flips the script on conventional authoritarian leadership. Rather than issuing top-down orders, servant leaders focus first on understanding and supporting their people. This empowers employees to take initiative in shaping their own roles. Servant leaders actively seek out the ideas and unique contributions of those they serve. They help team members feel purposeful and energized. By putting employee development ahead of control, humble servant leaders unlock greater passion, engagement and performance.

Robert Greenleaf first coined the phrase “servant leadership” in 1970. Since then, the approach has gained popularity across organizations. Servant leaders don’t view leadership as being about the accumulation of power. Instead, they gain influence by rolling up their sleeves and providing tangible, emotional and professional support to employees. Their core focus is nurturing growth.

Unlike authoritative styles, servant leadership is not about the glory of the person in charge. It’s about making everyone around them better. Servant leaders succeed when those they support reach their full potential. There are many examples of humble leaders achieving great results by focusing on their people rather than themselves.

Seth Godin, founder of the altMBA leadership program, is a servant leader who teaches that impact and influence come from caring about others and sharing what you can bring to the table. Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb, has said his key responsibility is to serve hosts and guests, not investors. He aims to build a sustainable service culture, not chase quarterly returns.

Humility in Action

So how does humble servant leadership work in practice? The key is to frequently and consistently demonstrate you care about supporting employees' growth and happiness at work. Here are some tactical examples:

  • Listen First: Servant leaders avoid swooping in with solutions. Instead they listen to understand employee challenges and goals. Humble leaders recognize they don't have all the answers. Seeking input demonstrates care and surfaces creative ideas.

  • Provide Individual Support: Get to know each person's skills, needs and motivations. Then provide tailored support, whether it's professional development, new opportunities, feedback or celebrating progress. No two employees are alike.

  • Develop from Within: Coach and mentor employees to help them gain skills and confidence. Offer challenging assignments to help team members grow. Be patient but persistent in nurturing each person’s development.

  • Connect Work to Purpose: Help employees understand how their role contributes to meaningful outcomes that matter to customers or society. Connect day-to-day tasks to a compelling "why" that motivates quality work.

  • Model Accountability: Hold yourself accountable before asking the same of others. Take ownership of mistakes and deficiencies. Commit to continuous improvement at a personal level.

  • Enable Autonomy: Give employees latitude to take initiative and shape aspects of their roles. Grant authority and trust, rather than micromanaging processes. Seek input on decisions.

  • Uplift the Team: Publicly recognize the unique contributions of individuals across the company. Celebrate wins and progress. Promote collaboration by reminding everyone they succeed and fail together.

The greatest servant leaders consistently demonstrate true care and concern for employees as individuals. They provide air cover and support to let team members fly high. By taking on the burden of everyday obstacles, humble leaders empower greatness in others.

The Results of Putting People First

Adopting a servant leadership approach driven by humility rather than ego or control leads to tremendous results across organizations. A Cornell University study found that “organizations with a culture of servant leadership achieved better customer satisfaction, greater employee engagement, higher job performance, and lower voluntary turnover." If leaders focus on unleashing human potential, performance follows.

Servant leadership methods humanize work. Employees respond with extra passion, creativity and initiative when they feel genuinely supported and heard. Purpose fuels people in a way fear or pressure never will. Humble leaders avoid micromanaging by empowering others. Serving first builds trust and goodwill that motivates employees over the long-term, through ups and downs. Performance stems from engagement and care.

The bottom line is that servant leadership is no longer a "nice-to-have" in business. It's a competitive advantage. Wise leaders recognize you either build up people or you deplete them. If you respect and care for your employees, you will multiply returns. A humble focus on people is the key to unlocking sustainable high performance.


The old model of commanding employees through hierarchy and control no longer works in today's business environment. Employees have too many options and are too disengaged. Leaders must shift to an empowering servant leadership approach focused on providing caring support for employees to develop and contribute their best. This humble leadership style achieves greater buy-in, passion and outcomes by putting people first. Servant leaders succeed by helping others succeed. Though counter-intuitive to authoritarian leaders, humility, trust and service are the keys to impact. This is how humble leadership really works.


Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.

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