Authoritarian leadership styles are out, and humility is the way forward, according to London Business School professor Daniel M Cable: author of recent business book Alive at Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do.
In a Financial Times column,  Cable argues that amid an increasingly complex business environment, today’s leaders “are no longer in the best position to tell others what to do”. Instead, he points out, “they need help from those working on the ground to provide insight about day-to-day activities”.
Under this approach, Cable notes, “Leaders help set the vision and the direction, while employees experiment with and develop practical new approaches to make the organisation work better. So for true power, leaders need to listen and give others a chance to explore, experiment and improve things without fear of reprisal … Get this right, and you will have a workforce where people think like owners, and are willing to work hard and work smart to make the organisation’s vision become reality.”
In Cable’s view, business schools “should arm their graduates with the confidence to fail and the self-assuredness to encourage those they lead to do so too. Either learn how to fail, or fail to learn.”
Humility as a valuable leadership asset was also a key theme of a recent Forbes interview with Elizabeth W Smith: the new president and CEO of Manhattan’s Central Park Conservancy. 
In the piece, Smith notes: “One of the things that surprised me when I got here was that there was so much I didn't know. I needed to get to know the staff, and I needed to get to know how the park actually worked.” She adds: “My father and grandfather were businessmen and philanthropists, and they were allergic to pretension. They were humble in the way they dealt with everyone. I learned from them that you have to listen, because you have to respect people and the work that they’ve done. I’m aware of the fact that I’m inheriting a very successful organisation. That happened with a lot of effort, a lot of money, a lot of thought, a lot of cooperation and a successful public/private relationship.”
What do leaders stand to gain by adopting a more humble stance in their dealings with employees?
The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Smith’s message ties in very closely with what we have said before about servant leadership: it’s all about recognising that there’s a higher purpose – which, in her case, is to look after New York’s Central Park – while encouraging the people around you to honour that purpose and make their own contributions to it. This is particularly touching when we consider Central Park’s huge importance to Manhattan, and how Smith’s conservancy must work to ensure that the park continues to function not just as a lovely place to walk around and visit, but the lungs of the metropolis, too. What a great cause to get behind.”
Cooper notes: “Smith’s best comments are where she reflects on all the things that she didn’t know. If we as leaders keep reminding ourselves that there are lots of things we don’t know, and that we need to ask the people around us for their input, then we will see natural improvements in our workplace relationships. Maintaining one of the world’s most famous urban parks would undoubtedly require a huge number of specialist skills, and it’s impossible for one person to have a grasp of them all. Recognising that – and the fact that it’s okay to ask around – is a real hallmark of humble leadership.
She adds: “it’s also pleasing to see that Smith places such high value in getting to know her staff: what motivates and inspires them? What is it about the Central Park story that really resonates with them and makes them come to work every day? The humility in this approach stems from the total lack of arrogance and presumption. And as well as being extremely refreshing, her outlook makes tremendous business sense.”
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- 15 February 2019
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