Leaders need to be many things, and one of the most important traits a leader needs is humility. An effective leader needs to display humility and respect for self-worth. Alicia Dunams engages author, CEO, and academic Marilyn Gist in a conversation on leadership styles. Through her book, The Extraordinary Power of Leader Humility, she shows how humility is a must not just for business leaders but across all sectors. Marilyn discusses how effective leaders help educate and develop their followers and bring about necessary change. Learn how to be a humble leader with this talk.
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Leader Humility With Marilyn Gist
It is Episode 36 featuring author Marilyn Gist.
Before we jump in, Marilyn, I want to speak a little bit about your impressive backgrounds. You are a researcher, a professor and an author. In this interview, we are going to be jumping into the power of leadership in terms of humility. This is featured in your book The Extraordinary Power of Leader Humility: Thriving Organizations & Great Results. Your work has garnered over 12,000 citations. That’s impressive. You are a Howard University grad. You are teaching at the University of Washington and Seattle University. Your academic career spans The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Washington. You help the Boeing Endowed Professorship of Business Management. You are at Seattle University as well where you served as Associate Dean, Professor of Management, Executive Director of the Center for Leadership Formation. I have a question for you before we get started. Where are you in terms of your professorship?
I am Professor Emerita. I am independent. I’m doing a lot of work with the book, speaking. I have some assessment tools that are around this topic of leader humility. I am also doing some direct client work. It’s pretty exciting. It grew to the point that I needed to step back. I am still doing a little bit of teaching but we will probably wrap that up.
We are going to get started with our first question. Marilyn, why did you write a book?
I wrote a book, which is this book because it was a message I felt was not out there. A lot of people still look to leaders as this strong man model. I’m using strong men across genders, this idea that leaders do need to be strong decisive. Our image is this type-A hard-driving personality. The research shows that’s only one piece of what we need for leaders. Going back in years with the work of Jim Collins that I deeply respect in his book Good to Great, he found that what differentiated companies to become great, Alicia, are those whose leaders have not only this strong drive but a deep personal humility. That message has not been understood and broadly disseminated. I wanted to do more research on this construct of humility. Once I learned how it was working both in laboratory studies but also out there in the field, I felt compelled to get the message out. That’s why I wrote the book.
As we jump in, let’s get specific on what is humility. How is it different from vulnerability?
I have come to define it. Leader humility in particular means feeling and displaying deep regard for other’s dignity. The concept of dignity is your sense of self-worth. I could talk to you about some of the things that go into that. My premise is that every human has needs, a sense of self-worth. No one’s sense of self-worth is more important than others. I might have a bigger title. I might have more education but on a human level, my sense of self-worth is not better than yours. Where this gets to be important in leaders is that leading means relationship. It’s important for leaders to support that sense of dignity, that sense of self-worth that all of their stakeholders have. I’m defining humility in a specific way. With vulnerability, people often use the term authenticity, getting real, sharing some of your softer dimensions, your weak spots. You can certainly do that if you are a humble leader but it’s more about balancing your own ego with a sense that other’s dignity, their sense of self-worth matter. I have to honor that in the relationship.
Thank you for defining dignity, other self-worth. That’s so important in terms of leadership. There’s almost an evolution of leadership if you will. The evolution of people is where we are self-focused at the beginning of our life it seems like. As we grow older and wiser, it changes from self-centric to others-focused. We see it in the world. I would love to hear from you, Marilyn, some examples of leaders who lead with leader humility.
In the book, I interviewed twelve CEOs of pretty much big brand companies. I wanted to pick people who were known for leader humility based on feedback from people who work with them, for them, as well as press reports. I picked big brand companies because I wanted people to recognize the names of these firms and realize this isn’t some backwater concept that works in a three-person company. Although it very much does, fewer people would know of that company. A couple of stories that I could bring in, one being Alan Mullaly, who at one point was named the number three greatest leader in the world. He was known for taking over Ford when it was losing $17 billion during The Great Recession, hemorrhaging money and being the only auto manufacturer that turned around without government bailout money.
The hero of that story is Alan Mulally, who has an extremely humble approach to leadership, went in and established what he calls expected behaviors, which begin with people first. Love them up. It’s about humility, love and service. Everyone is included. Appreciate, respect one another. He models that from the top. He required it of his entire leadership team and on down the line. What happens when you have a leader who does that is that the trust starts to go up. Once it has been tested and found that he means it, then the trust level in the organization goes up. People’s hearts and minds are galvanized. They give everything they can to turning the company around.
Alan still did the things that leaders need to do in terms of setting a vision, setting strategy, providing direction, showing that strength that we would expect. He did it in a way that was not commanded and control. It made a huge difference. They were the only automaker that turned around without government bailout funds. He has gotten renowned for that. Here’s one prime example. There are several others, many stories in the book in addition to some concepts and research around humility.
We want everyone to go to Amazon.com or your local bookstore to purchase the book we are talking about, The Extraordinary Power of Leader Humility. My question for you as you shared that example is, is it just business leaders that get to be humble or do you extend that out into politics and to other platforms of leadership?
I see it as being cross sectors. I included some nonprofits. When I picked twelve, I didn’t have a lot of space to mix it up. I do have Sally Jewell who was Secretary of the US Department of Interior at the time. I had also John Noseworthy who was at the time CEO of Mayo Clinic, a nonprofit. It certainly works there. When we are looking at government, it’s very real. A lot of the principles hold. I do think in our political system, we have some structural dynamics that almost encourage a micro-focus of, “I’ve got my constituent groups who voted me in office. I don’t have to collaborate with you because you are not my boss. My boss is the constituents.” What I feel is still very true about my work and what the message is.
We are seeing this with the shift in leadership nationally. It’s trying to elevate the discourse. It’s not just about you and your constituents. It’s about what do we need for the greater good. If we are talking about the country as a whole, what do we need for the greater good? Beginning to look at policy at that level and then use the style of humility to try to get different voices to the table to collaborate more. That’s a big order. It’s a big challenge. We will have better long-run success for everybody if we do that.
That’s powerful and important. What you said about speaking to or wanting to satiate their constituents, sometimes maybe even pandering to their constituents in terms of politics. When there’s an agenda in place, I would think that humility can sometimes go out the window.
Leader humility means feeling and displaying deep regard for others' dignity. The concept of dignity is your sense of self-worth. Click To Tweet
The challenge for political leaders is to help educate their constituents on why my local constituent is one important group but you are not the only group. We are a nation. On a national level, we have some national issues that we need to figure out a way to come together on and climate change might be one. It’s not only national. It’s global. One of the jobs of leaders is to help educate. You might have constituents who have special interests based on local industry looking at that particular issue. You need to find a way to both support the local economy and help bring about the change that may be necessary to deal with the larger issue.
That can only happen with good leadership. It takes a style of leader humility to do both ends, to say, “I hear you locally. Your views are important. I understand and empathize. Here’s how we are going to try to help with that. I need you to hear that another set of interests you have as being part of our nation is what we are doing in the long run that has broader implications than what’s simply happening here.” We need more of that.
It’s a fine skill to be able to do that, to be able to hear someone, hear people’s grievances, complaints, hear what someone or a group of people needs and then also consider the entire dynamic, the world when there are a group of some people and then there’s a group of all of us. It’s a dance if you will. It’s a leadership skill.
We all have membership in multiple groups. I’m a woman. I’m a Howard University alum. I am many things. I’m not simply one. When you have things that are conflicting between one group and another, part of the leadership role is to forge that consensus. A leader who has humility, who says, “All of you matter. We are having some disagreement. Let’s come to the table. Let’s look at the overarching goal that we have. Let’s try to find a way to bring mutual interests together.” It’s going to take some compromise. You may not be able to get everything you want. I may not get everything I want but let’s remember, we are also members of this larger group. We want to make sure that that is protected as well. There are skills that strong leaders with humility have that focus on how we do forge that consensus. It goes back to respecting the dignity of all people and emphasizing those communication skills. It’s using the strength but for a common good, as opposed to my own personal, local good.
That’s what I want to speak about with everything in leadership when it comes to developing leadership skills. There’s a toolkit. One thing that I teach because I do leadership training for corporates and around the toolset of conscious communication is how can we create intentional communication for transformational results personally in a culture and at large? The toolkit that I’m curious about is what is your toolkit? How do you support people in becoming more humble? How do you support people in being focused on other people’s self-worth and dignity?
I do that in two ways. One is that in the book, I present a model for leader humility that’s very behavioral. It centers around three questions we all have or any leaders were faced with. It’s who are you? Not just what’s your name but who are you. What are you made of? Where are we going? What are you asking me to do? Is it going to be different or challenging? Am I going to have to learn new skills? Do you see me as an individual? Am I just a cog in the wheel for you and your agenda? Leaders, words and actions have a way of answering those questions. People don’t typically ask you that upfront but they are sure looking at you and wanting to know what those answers are. Leaders will show who I am, the direction I set, how I treat you are going to answer those questions.
The model of leader humility is a set of 6 key, 6 success behaviors that provide positive indicators as a way of answering those questions. They include things under who I am. It’s about my robust integrity. “Do I walk the talk? Can you trust me? Do I follow through with commitments?” Another one is a balanced ego. “Am I straying toward arrogance? Is my confidence simply vital-centered confidence that leaders need? Am I too meek where I can’t make decisions?” I won’t walk through all six but another one getting back to the topic we were discussing of constituents who have differing views is this idea of generous inclusion.
Alicia, we talk a lot about inclusion in the diversity equity inclusion literature. It certainly implies there. I’m talking much more broadly. I’m thinking about all of the constituent or stakeholder groups that leaders have. For business leaders, you are looking at employees, customers, supply chain vendors, your boards, your regulators and so on. Leaders have relationships with each of those and more groups. The nature of that relationship needs to be inclusive where you draw the boundary broad enough that that person or group of people and their interest is considered on the inside of your work. When you are making policy decisions or about to take action that’s going to have a negative impact, you are careful to figure you pick up the phone and let that person know this is coming down the pike. I would like to hear your views. I have to make a decision but I want you to know what’s going on.
Being inclusive and if you know that there are going to be conflict in those opinions, bringing people to the table, to charter them, to help be part of the resolution, forging that consensus, that kind of inclusion is not nearly as common as it needs to be but it’s a hallmark of how I treat you. If you are one of my stakeholders and I exclude you in some significant decisions, I have lost your support. As a result, I’m going to have my plans implemented well. You are probably going to come around the back and try to block it or resist it. A lot of the conflict we see comes from past deeds of leaving people out when we should have included them.
From a psychological standpoint in terms of humans, being excluded is one of the most fearful, scary things that someone can go through. When you were ex-communicated, like the early sapiens, from a particular tribe or group, it’s the equivalent of death. That’s why inclusion is so important. If you exclude someone, simply not inviting someone or not even letting someone know why they weren’t invited to something, that this meeting was for these particular people, it is a hit to someone’s emotional place of where they are. I want you to speak into ego a bit. What does ego have to do with all of this? Do you see traits of the ego in some of the leaders that you work with?
The ones that I work with pretty much have their egos in check. I don’t meet a lot of CEOs who lack a strong sense of themselves and their achievement. That’s fine. The ones with leader humility have two things in addition to that strong sense of themselves and their achievement. They are wise enough to limit how much they talk about it. To realize that it’s not about them, it’s about you. It’s about the relationship. They are as focused on you, your achievements, your interests and your needs as they are on themselves. The other thing that they have is a reluctance to boast and brag. There are some leaders that were not included in the people I interviewed because I was modeling leader humility and how it works with some well-known companies.
We certainly have seen leaders who are this strong, assertive, maybe arrogant leadership style. Some people admire that. They think it’s a sign of strength but what it does is alienate a large number of people because they don’t see themselves in the picture. We have certainly seen a lot of that on display, nationally and even globally with some fairly arrogant leaders. Maybe for a certain set of followers, they feel seen. People who are not particularly following it, feel excluded. That’s where the error is. It’s not recognizing that all of your stakeholders are people with whom you have a relationship. If you are arrogant, you are going to exclude a number of those people.
Leaders who express arrogance, division, fearmongering, not being nice, the people that are attracted by that leadership would be someone of low self-worth like you see in relationships. A narcissist can seem to attract a particular type of person that is used to that abusive model. I’m bringing this up when I think about the leaders that you were saying. Sometimes it could be seen as charismatic maybe. The arrogance is strong or bombastic. You have to see what part of you is being ignited by that. It’s your unworthiness or self-doubt.
It’s some thoughts about that because that’s interesting. When it comes to communication when you are giving feedback to someone and they reject it, they deny it or they deflect, that’s always a key indicator to me that you are bumping up against their ego. When that’s the case, it’s a just notice moment. I love talking about leadership. That’s why this is fantastic to have you up here, Marilyn, to speak about this. I wanted to jump more into your book. You shared some of the key indicators of your book. Not everything because we want people to go out and buy the book. A question I have for you is what are some life lessons in your book?
I would offer a couple. One is this universality of the notion of dignity. In Western culture, particularly in the US, we are so individualistic that we don’t pay a lot of attention to the idea that everyone has needs, a sense of self-worth. Some other cultures do. There are some Asian cultures that have this concept of face. You don’t want to say or do things that would violate someone’s face, someone’s sense of self-worth. There’s almost kind of a humility built into interactions in some of their cultures. We don’t emphasize that. We emphasize the individual and what they can show. In the process, when you are thinking of not only leadership but family relationships, friendships, neighbors getting along, humility is a foundation for any healthy relationship. If I dishonor your sense of dignity, your sense of self-worth, I have damaged the relationship. It’s going to be hard to get collaboration to any healthy level. That’s one lesson takeaway I would offer.
Another one is that there’s a dance between my humility and your dignity. I have to mute my own ego to an extent, not entirely. I can let you know I still have some great achievements or skills going on. I have to mute it enough to support your dignity. I think of this almost like ballroom dancing, the tango, where you’ve got two partners moving across the floor. If one of them is not paying attention to the other, then you are stepping on people’s feet. It’s not at all an elegant dance. To make that a beautiful movement, you have to have the two partners in sync. They have to attend to each other. The dance between my humility and your dignity is a bit like that. I need to be mindful of your sense of self-worth, at the same time we are trying to get to goals or have a discussion on what we are disagreeing with, any of the rest. That’s another big lesson and takeaway. In any relationship, dignity matters. Supporting other’s worth is essential. That requires a dance between my humility and your dignity.
Dignity and humility are not something that is spoken about a lot. I love how you have the twelve leaders that you feature in the book. That’s important for us to model. We get to learn about people that we get to aspire to be like and what are their toolkits, what are their tools in their kit that they use on this journey called life. That is important that we get to learn more about these. I’m glad that you feature them in your book. With that, I have a new lightning round. I’m excited. The interview has been going fantastic. I wanted to jump into some thoughts to support the readers at home on the following. Number one is what is the most important book to read?
I may be partial to this but I like John Gottman’s work. I don’t know that I have several of his books. I don’t know the names offhand. He has researched marital partnerships. He was able to predict within five minutes of the video which couples are going to get divorced. He predicts that with about a 97% accuracy rate. He bases it on behaviors that he sees. These are very tied in my mind to dignity. Out of his research, he’s found that a thing like condescension is not about whether people disagree but how they disagree. They can state what they don’t like but when they do it condescendingly is one example. That relationship has headed down the wrong path. I have learned a lot from his book. That’s one of my favorites.
It’s not what you say. It’s how you say it. It’s like everything in life. The next question is what author has contributed significantly to your life?
This may be taking a bit of a detour from work but I have been a big fan of the espionage spy genre for years. I loved Robert Ludlum’s work and read so many of his books over the years. I’m sorry we lost him. He’s a phenomenal writer.
What life lesson do you wish you learned earlier on?
I will default to the lesson around humility and dignity. I have made some mistakes of my own, both as a friend, as a spouse and even as a leader. When I look back on my younger self, there were a lot of improvements I could have made had I understood these concepts earlier.
Marilyn, what is your legacy advice? What are you leaving this world?
I would like to say that I’m leaving a lesson that’s rooted in love, anchored in a sense of deep honoring of other’s lives and beings. It’s coming from a loving space. Hopefully, that’s part of the legacy.
Are you going to write another book? If so, what will it cover? If not, why not?
I am thinking of writing another book. I’m jammed with the work that’s spun out of this one. It is likely to be an extension. There may be two books. What’s becoming clear is there’s a need for a book that talks about how these principles apply to every day relationships and not just leader behaviors. That is coming in some form. Another one that looks at more specific practices of how can I. It’s the how-to. This book was a bit of what and why with a little bit of how to. I’m hearing people want more of the how-to. That is probably the extension that I will write.
People want the tools. They want to know how to. We are in our brains all the time. We want the strategy. It’s probably a little bit of how-to and then that heart transformation work as well. That’s not a strategy. It’s who we are, who we will be and connecting with others in a heart-to-heart way. With that, I would love to hear where can people find more about you, your book and the work that you do in the world?
The book is available on Amazon or anywhere you would buy books. Other online retailers, as well as physical bookstores. You can get it if they don’t have it in stock. I have a website which is www.MarilynGist.com. You can either google that or you can go straight to the website. There are a lot of information about the work that I do, the book, some of my talks and so forth. Also, I wanted to mention that we put out assessment tools around leader humility. Those are available through the website too. They connect with where those are sold. It’s online. You can go online and take the test. It takes about ten minutes. Get your own download that way.
I use that both with some of the teaching and training work I do, as well as direct consulting work with organizations. It is proving to be a great way for leaders to get a sense of how they are doing on those six keys. One of the tools is the six keys and the other one test is ten dimensions. It gets a little bit more at some of the arrogance and meekness behaviors as well. It’s more comprehensive and very helpful as a baseline to know. The frequent question I’m getting is, “I need to know more about how to grow in this.” That’s part of what’s prompting, thoughts about more writing.
As we get wrapped up here, Marilyn, I would love for you to share one final piece of advice, one final thought that you have for our readers out there who are reading the show.
No one's sense of self-worth is more important than others. Click To Tweet
The biggest observation I have is that we have a very divided world, a divided country. We have lots of difficulties understanding each other. I would like all of us to drop back to understand that regardless of our faith beliefs or not, it seems to be part of the world that we are individuals. We are all different. Every single person not only has a sense of self-worth but needs to be valued. If you are a parent raising children, your children need to be valued. If you are a spouse, your spouse needs to be valued. Bosses, value the people who work for you. Value across these differences, try to enlarge our acceptance and our understanding of human differences, whether we are talking race, nationality to be able to find the beauty in people who are coming from different places than we are. If we can do that as a human species, the world would be a far better place.
Thank you for those words of advice. We get to sprinkle that more and more around. That to me is inclusive, compassionate leadership and focusing out on others. That’s a very important last thought. Marilyn, I thank you so much for participating and being part of the show.
Thank you so much, Alicia. It’s an honor to be here.
Thank you so much.
- Marilyn Gist
- The Extraordinary Power of Leader Humility: Thriving Organizations & Great Results
- Good to Great
- Mayo Clinic
About Marilyn Gist
As author of The Extraordinary Power of Leader Humility, Marilyn Gist guides leaders in creating thriving organizations and great results. Imagine a world in which all leaders feel and display a deep regard for others’ dignity. This is what humility means and it helps leaders resolve conflict, increase engagement, and optimize performance. Marilyn has extensively studied why leader humility is the essential foundation of all healthy organizations and validated her work with interviews of prominent CEOs of companies ranging from the Mayo Clinic and Ford to Starbucks and Costco. She adds value through ground-breaking insight: the six keys required for leaders to work together well with all stakeholders. According to Marshall Goldsmith, “Marilyn Gist’s The Extraordinary Power of Leader Humility, is a must-read for every leader.” This bestselling book has been featured in Forbes and Quartz, and Marilyn’s ideas on leader humility have appeared in The Hill, CEOWorld, Sirius SM Wharton Radio, and numerous podcasts. Ken Blanchard who authored The One-Minute Manager says, “This inspiring book belongs on the desk of every CEO and politician in America.”
Based on this work, Marilyn consults widely and is a keynote speaker on topics emphasizing NextGen Leadership, Rising out of Crisis, and Get Off the Sidelines and Into the Game (the latter being geared toward female leaders). A recognized expert, Marilyn brings direct leadership experience along with academic credentials. As former Associate Dean, Professor of Management, and Executive Director of the Center for Leadership Formation, she led the design and development of Seattle University’s Leadership EMBA degree program from its inception in 2006 to rank as high as #11 in the nation by US News and World Report. She began her academic career at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She later joined the University of Washington where she held the Boeing Endowed Professorship of Business Management and served as Faculty Director of Executive MBA programs for many years. Her research has been highly cited by others, demonstrating exceptional thought leadership.
Marilyn earned her BA from Howard University and her MBA and PhD from the Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is a member of the Academy of Management, American Psychological Association, Marshall Goldsmith 100, and the International Women’s Forum.
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