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Successful innovators have a common leadership trait: humility

Daniel Saunders

Chief Executive Officer

What’s the best leadership style to foster innovation? 

 

Today’s executives recognise the key to business growth is corporate innovation. But a company’s ability to innovate is in jeopardy. “Bro” culture is popularising domineering bosses, and while this leadership style might be ‘on trend’ it will do nothing to encourage company innovation efforts. Dominant leaders rarely trust others to make decisions, cultivating a culture of one-sided conversations. This strips away an individual’s agency to raise ideas, affects motivation and morale, and creates unnecessary competition and conflict—the antithesis of a good innovation environment. 

If the dominant leadership style is out, what qualities or traits should leadership look to develop instead to improve the climate for innovation? 

 

What’s the best leadership style to support innovation? 

After decades of working in corporate innovation, I realised a common trait across all successful leaders in innovation: humility. Many academic papers also find that humble leaders create the best environments for innovation. There’s also a significant impact on business performance as a result; employees operating in a positive environment add up to 30% or more to the bottom line. 

New research has challenged this understanding of humility’s importance in fostering innovation. According to the study, leader humility can be substituted for high task interdependence or highly self-managed teams. However, I’d argue that highly collaborative and autonomous teams can only exist and thrive when humble leaders are at the helm. 

 

How does humility help create an environment for innovation?

Humble leaders are said to have three main traits; 

  1. They socially signal their limitations to others. 
  2. They publicly praise others. 
  3. They display a high willingness to learn.  

Let’s explore how these traits improve company innovation. 

  • Humble leaders create a happy environment where individuals are credited and supported. This increases employee motivation and their desire to work as a team. Collaboration and teamwork aid innovation by introducing diverse thinking, skills, and collective efficacy. 
  • Humility impacts “voice climate”—this is the belief that it’s safe to speak out and challenge the status quo. A positive voice climate creates the ideal environment for idea generation. Teams feel safe speaking out and suggesting ideas without fear of scorn or repercussions.
  • Humble leaders are open to the ideas of others. They recognise their value but do not believe they have all the answers. Therefore, they consider ideas that challenge their current understanding and are willing to learn. This mindset is crucial for a nascent left-of-field idea to get off the ground.  

 

Can I develop humility?

In a nutshell, yes. But only if you can set aside your ego. Here’s how you can work on being more humble. 

Understand your limitations and be tolerant of failure. 

man pushing up a big rock

Photo by Vicky Sim on Unsplash

When receiving criticism, it’s second nature to get defensive, but humility involves accepting  your flaws. Objectively reviewing your capabilities, strengths, and weaknesses is an excellent starting place and can help you get comfortable with acknowledging your limitations. Use 360-degree feedback and ask colleagues, “How can I improve as a leader?” External feedback from an executive coach may also help assess your behaviours, attitudes, and leadership characteristics.

It’s important to not only be aware of your blind spots but also acknowledge them. Such behaviour sets the expectation that it’s okay to admit to your weaknesses and not have all the answers. Likewise, failing is part and parcel of any innovation journey, so own them and show what learnings you made. This helps model the desired response/behaviour when faced with failure. 

 

Actively listen to stakeholders. 

Come in we're open wooden sign

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Humility requires the capacity to pick up knowledge from others. You need to actively listen and follow directions to be teachable.

One approach to developing active listening skills is to paraphrase what you hear someone saying. Continue to ask questions, but let the speaker complete each point before interjecting. 

Showing off your active listening skills signals to employees that their thoughts and concerns are welcome. Active listening also helps improve empathy by understanding diverse thoughts, emotions, and ideas.

 

Give recognition

employee of the month award

Photo by Ofspace Digital Agency on Unsplash

 

Recognise individuals who exhibit the attitudes and behaviours you’re seeking to instil in your firm, as well as their successes. You can do this via a formal system, a dedicated Slack channel or impromptu comments of praise in all-hands meetings.

A note of caution. Never pass off the ideas of others as your own. This is a surefire way to demotivate your team and discourage them from suggesting ideas. 

 

Summary

Innovation is essential to progress in today’s competitive business environment. However, it requires an internal culture that encourages novel ideas, embraces failure, and allows people to question “the way we’ve always done it.”

Humble CEOs favourably impact a company’s innovation potential by fostering the right environment. And while humble leadership isn’t as popular as dominant styles, it will provide the best opportunity to develop market-defining products, services, or business models.