Humble Leadership: How Serving Is the new Leading

Author: Michelle Russell       

You didn’t have to take Business Admin 101 to understand how the traditional management style works: It’s a vertical hierarchy, with an emphasis on formal, transactional relationships, professional distance, and all guidance coming from the organization’s chief. But that textbook approach has become, say the authors of Humble Leadership: The Power of Relationships, Openness, and Trust — as well as a spate of other authors of new business books and articles — “hopelessly inflexible and outdated.”

Humble Leadership’s coauthors — Edgar H. Schein, an organizational scholar, and son Peter A. Schein, a former Silicon Valley exec — take a “relational view of leadership as a process of learning, sharing, and directing new and better things to do in the dynamic interpersonal and group processes that increasingly characterize today’s organizations.” In other words, they write, leadership “can occur at any level, in any team or workgroup, in any meeting, in tight or open networks, in collocated or widely dispersed work units, and across all kinds of cultural boundaries. Leadership can come from group members as often as from designated or appointed leaders.”

In the Scheins’ view, leadership is always a relationship, and “thrives in a group culture of high openness and high trust.”

In addition to the idea that leadership is dispersed and organizations should be flatter, a main tenet of the humble or servant leadership model is its focus on empowering every person within organizations, regardless of their title or role. That’s what Dan Cable, author of the recent book Alive at Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do, finds lacking in a top-down management model.

humble leadership

These four books discuss the idea of humble, or servant, leadership.

“By focusing too much on control and end goals, and not enough on their people, leaders are making it more difficult to achieve their own desired outcomes,” he writes in a Harvard Business Review article. The key, said Cable, a professor of organizational behavior at London Business School, “is to help people feel purposeful, motivated, and energized so that they can bring their best selves to work.” That requires those at the top to “adopt the humble mindset of a servant leader,” he writes, who view their “key role as serving employees as they explore and grow, providing tangible and emotional support as they do so.”

According to Cable, servant leaders have “humility, courage, and insight to admit that they can benefit from the expertise of others who have less power than them. They actively seek the ideas and unique contributions of the employees that they serve.”

In yet another new book, The Art of Servant Leadership II, author Art Barter adds another skillset to the mix: “One of the most important behaviors of a servant leader is listening to understand — not just listening to what’s being said,” he writes, “but understanding what’s being said.”

Listening and understanding can only come about by asking good questions. In The CEO Next Door, authors Elena Botelho and Kim Powell write: “The best CEOs don’t think of themselves as the ones with all the answers. Instead they tend to ask the best questions.” Being curious, they say, “is a hallmark of adaptable CEOs.” They go on to cite how MIT’s Hal Gregersen, a world-renowned expert on innovation, encourages leaders to set aside four minutes every 24 hours — adding up to one full day each year — “to ask better questions.”

Which would be music to “questionologist” Warren Berger’s ears. Berger has devoted much of his writing career to studying the power of questions, and has written a follow-up book — The Book of Beautiful Questions — to his bestselling A More Beautiful Question. In the sequel, he devotes a chapter to exploring why questioning should be a regular practice among leaders. One question, “How can I help?” should be “coming out of leaders’ mouths,” he said, “every day.”

Questions like that square nicely with servant leadership. Convene spoke with Berger to learn how leading with humility is linked to a culture of inquiry and with two association CEOs — Wanda Johnson, CMP, CAE, and Arlene A. Pietranton, Ph.D., CAE — who embody that approach.

Find the links to their interviews before the CMP Test Time information below.

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene. Illustration by Dadu Shin.

humble leadership

Warren Berger (from left), Wanda Johnson, and Arlene Pietranton


We’ve long thought that the only way to lead others — whether you’re the CEO of an organization or managing a small team — is top-down. But as organizations struggle to navigate a rapidly shifting economy and increasingly complicated marketplace, a slew of experts say it’s time to ditch that model. They point to a different way forward: It’s called humble or servant leadership. We explore what that means in our January issue’s CMP Series stories linked below.


Earn one clock hour of certification credit by reading this story and accompanying interviews, and reading the Harvard Business Review article “How Humble Leadership Really Works,” by Dan Cable.

To earn certification clock hours, visit the CMP Series page to answer questions about the information contained in this CMP Series article and the additional material.

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