Gist, professor emerita and former associate dean of Seattle University’s executive programs, has spent more than 25 years working with and studying business leaders. In The Extraordinary Power of Leader Humility (Berrett-Koehler, Sept.), she interviews a dozen CEOs, including Costco cofounder James Sinegal and former Ford Motor CEO Alan Mullaly, who she says achieved success while keeping their egos in check.
How do you define humility?
It’s a tendency to feel and display a deep regard for others’ dignity. Once we get that, then it means that all of our stakeholders have dignity that needs to be supported, which leads to a different style of relationship. It creates a situation that says, “How do we work together to resolve the issues that are of mutual concern to us?” That may involve some messy consensus building, but ultimately you get to solutions that have more buy-in from different groups and have a better chance of being sustained.
Why did you home in on the concept of humility in leadership?
Humility is foundational to a relationship. If I stomp all over your dignity, you’re not going to want to work with me. Yet it’s a concept that at first many leaders don’t get. I’ve worked with many who come to leadership thinking, “This is about status,” or “I have the power, so I’m going to use it in the best way I think is possible.” But leading is also about relationships. Who’s supposed to follow you? If you don’t support their dignity, you’re not going to get followers. And then I realized I worked with some leaders who had a very different approach and an enormous amount of success as a result. Those are the leaders I reached out to for this book.
How do the ideas in your book relate to the concept of emotional intelligence?
Emotional intelligence is a broad term that includes specific insights and behaviors. I do believe in the research. The problem for me when we talk about intelligence is it can sound like it’s something you either have or you don’t. Where I’m coming from is that there’s one specific that’s foundational to all healthy human relationships and it’s an understanding that every person has and needs a sense of self-worth. As a leader, if you lack that sense of others, people will back away from you. They’ll do what they have to do while they have a relationship with you, but they’re not going to give their all.
What does leading with humility look like now, in the context of the human and economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic?
There’s a need to understand that people are coming out of an experience that is fairly traumatic. Leaders will have to remember that there’s a human on the other side of this as opposed to just saying, “Okay, we’re open for business.” In terms of supply chains, a lot of businesses are going to go under; we’re already seeing delays in delivery and manufacturing. Pounding harder on suppliers isn’t going to work. There’s a need to really be sensitive to the dignity of the people who have to pick up the pieces and try to get the world working again when we get to the other side of this.