Humble Leadership: A positive book

Guest Post by Kimberley Barker

When you’re looking to be a positive agent or leader in your workplace, here’s a great book for inspiration! That’s why I’m pleased to share this review by my friend Kimberley Barker.

The book “Humble Leadership, The Power of Relationship, Openness, and Trust” shares Ed and Peter Schein’s vision of Leadership and the relationship theory that serves as its foundation. They share stories that give the reader an insight into what Humble Leadership is and what it is not. Then, they discuss trends that they see reinforcing here-and-now humility, personization (or the personal relational emphasis), group sense-making, and team learning; all key components of Humble Leadership. The book ends with a superb list of further reading, self-analysis, and skill building to enhance your own Humble Leadership proficiency.

Why humble leadership?

The Scheins share why we need a new leadership model. The reasons include:
1. Task complexity is increasing exponentially. Organizations are dealing with an increasing rate of change (climate, specialization, etc.), the degree of global interconnectedness, multiculturalism, and the pace of technological advances. Teamwork, collaboration, and relationships will be required to help organizations create the “open socio-technical system” with constantly changing social and business context that need a “spirit of inquiry” approach.

2. The current managerial culture is myopic, has blind spots, and is often self-defeating. Gone are the competitive individualistic cultures with a mythical leader and the machine model of hierarchical organization design. Adaptive and connected cultures of teamwork are now required to thrive in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world.

3. There are generational changes in social and work values. Today there is more talk of social responsibility and becoming stewards of our environment and planet. The idea of “servant leadership” captures this well. There is the growing emphasis of work being meaningful, purpose-based with employees using their full range of talents at work, not just being there for money, bonuses, and things.

Three relationship levels

One of the things that spoke to me in the book is that the days of the transactional leader are gone. Today’s world needs personal relationship based leadership. The bad news is that we still have those who are leading transactionally. This is evidenced by various issues including; corruption and abuse of power, quality, safety, and disengaged talent. Many times, the problem boils down to egos out of control.

The Scheins also define relationships. A relationship is by their definition an interactive concept. For a relationship to exist there must be some symmetry in mutual expectations. The authors share relationship continuums that explain different “levels” of culturally defined relationships:
Level Minus 1: Total impersonal domination and coercion
Level 1: Transactional role and rule-based supervision, service, and all forms of helping relationships.
Level 2: Personal cooperative, trusting relationships as in friendships and in effective teams.
Level 3: Emotionally intimate total mutual commitments.

We spend much of our lives at the Level 1 relationship. For example, relationships such as doctor-patient, lawyer-client, sales, or service encounters. A Level 2 relationship moves from a “role” relationship to both parties being seen as a whole person with whom a more personal relationship around shared goals and experiences can be developed. Amy Edmondson’s work on “teaming” says that one of the best ways to “get to know each other” is to learn together. This allows for direct feedback and suggestions to be able to take place (Edmondson, Bohmer & Pisano, 2001). This does not mean that colleagues need to become friends, but that they see each other as a whole person in the context of getting a job done. It is not about being nice, but each person acknowledges psychological safety, is open to bi-directional communication, building trust, and, thereby, accomplishing the task faster, if not better.

Level 3 Positive leaders and cultures

Level 3 is a deepening of the relationship that goes beyond the Level 2 connection. It is more emotionally charged, and implies all of the trust and openness of Level 2. In addition, Level 3 assumes that we will actively support each other as needed and actively displays emotional and loving behavior towards each other. The distinction between Level 2 and 3 can be tricky. While there are still boundaries, there is a level of extraordinary cooperation and almost a sense of “super-empathy.” I have experienced a Level 3 work relationship twice in my 30+-year career and they were very special.

The authors provide a range of examples to give the reader a better idea of what the new level of leadership entails. These include; Ken Olsen, the cofounder of Digital Equipment Corporation personalizing hierarchical relationships, how a surgeon of a large urban children’s hospital builds trust and openness, and how an organization honors safety over productivity. With Humble Leadership, the concept of “human resources” needs to change from the values, assumptions, quality, safety and employee engagement problems we see today, to the new model of Humble Leadership, which is built on Level 2 relationships of openness and trust. People are not a resource they are a source.

What you ignore, becomes the culture

The book shares many examples of Humble Leadership in action. One example is Seattle’s Virginia Mason Medical Center that transformed their medical center into a level two culture. I really resonated with the analogy of how important the main leader’s vision was, and how he personally facilitated the implementation of his vision with a myriad of interventions. The intervention is a very important tool when creating change.

There is another example of how a captain on a Unites States’ nuclear submarine turned followers into leaders through creating a Humble Leadership Level 2 caring culture. The book addresses how many military, industry, nonprofits, and healthcare teams have created a culture of Humble Leadership to have high performing teams. A quote from a leader named Dave really stood out for me, “You set the standard and then discourage behavior that doesn’t meet the standard. If people still don’t live up to that standard after being counseled (a set number of times – reviewer’s words), you weed them out, remembering that no matter what managers write or say, they demonstrate their true intent by what they reward and tolerate. You get what you settle for.” (Schein, 2018, pp. 71 & 72).

Some nuggets of wisdom:

• Future leadership can fend off disruption with an adaptive, inclusive, organic organizational design.
• Humble Leadership requires reinforcing the “soft stuff.”
• Focus on Group Process and Experiential Learning. The importance of “checking-in” with stakeholders at all levels.
• Asking people to share “from the heart” on why they have invested in an organization can lead to creating a strategy and level of commitment with some incredible unanticipated outcomes.
• Bonding time, even with food and beverages, or “breaking bread,” can nurture a team and create a stronger bond. This is not wasted time! I have a friend who works for Toyota here in Michigan and they eat both breakfast and lunch together almost every day. She says that in addition to conducting some business, it is also a time to come together on a daily basis.
• The essence of Humble Leadership is maintaining acute focus on interpersonal and group dynamics.

We need Humble Leadership in this world now more than ever. We want to create a world where every person can thrive, no matter his or her status, position, or title. This book will help the reader move in that direction with your team. I, humbly, ask you to buy the book Humble Leadership, one for yourself and several copies for those in your organization.

Watch Kim’s Humble Leadership book review on YouTube

Here’s her Humble Leadership webinar.

Kimberley Barker, Ph.D. has taught at Cleary University since 2010 and teaches in the Master of Science in Culture, Change, and Leadership program. She has also taught at Eastern Michigan University, Management Department, since 2015. Dr. Barker can be reached at moc.liamgobfsctd@rekrabjmik.

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