man and woman high-fiving over office desk

It’s time for more humble leadership as companies seek to address issues they don’t teach in business school. It’s arguable that, for business school trained corporate leaders, ESG progress is often hampered less by a lack of desire to change than by deeply-rooted psychological barriers.

CEOs are well-versed in facing financial challenges – share price, shareholder returns, EBITDA. Yet, when confronted with issues (such as ESG) outside these familiar territories, their confidence can be dented and inaction follows.

These psychological barriers to good communications and progress are rooted in:

  • Suspicion and prejudice
  • Defensiveness and fear
  • Resistance to change
  • Emotional states
  • Selective perceptions
  • Distraction and inattentiveness

Thankfully, the last one is reducing as more company leaders wake up to the importance of ESG to their business. However, this simply magnifies some of the other factors.

Charisma, power and authority rank highly on the CV notes of many successful CEOs and entrepreneurs. If people are a bit scared of you, so much the better. Leaders need to be ruthless, make decisions decisively. They confidently point where they are headed, if not, how will anyone know what they are doing?

ESG, especially the environmental aspect, is uncharted territory for business leaders. We don’t naturally understand it and certainly do not have all the answers. We need to show a little humility.

It’s partly about ego. We have to learn to take advice, defer to experts, seek greater collaboration.

Humble leadership points the way forward

St Paul understood the role of humility among leaders. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

Yet, this is antithesis to the way our MBAs and business leadership courses train senior executives. Let alone the oft-quoted mantra, ‘fake it till you make it’.

Humility, acknowledging we do not have all the answers, has not been encouraged.

Maybe this is changing. Business coaches like Dan Rockwell are pushing the value of humble leadership.

Even the leading business title Forbes is getting in on the act. The magazine quotes academic research which finds that “ teams with leaders ranked as more humble performed better.”

So what does humble leadership look like in the context of ESG? I think there are five key elements.

  1. Be curious – we all love our bubbles. Get out more.
  2. Admit you don’t know it all – an acknowledgement of our own powerlessness is the first step on the road to enlightenment. Your team will love you for it.
  3. And you can’t solve it all – the climate crisis or global social justice is bigger than all of us. But we can deal with the issues we see every day. So stand firm on that ground.
  4. Defer to people who know more than you – whoever they may be. Encourage a diversity of perspectives, thoughts and ideas. Bring it in from outside if you need to
  5. Rejoice with them as they succeed where you couldn’t on your own

Are you a humble leader? I’d love to talk if you are, or if you’d like to become one.

Photo by krakenimages on Unsplash