Humble Leadership

Schein, E. & Schein, P. (2018), Humble Leadership. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Kohler.

NOTE:  When Edgar and Peter Schein use a term personization, personalizing, etc.  These are not typos.

When serving on doctoral faculties, one of the questions we used to ask in the prelims was, do leaders change organizations or do organizations change leaders? The answer, of course, is a both/and.  Leaders affect organizations and organizations affect leaders.   The Scheins are clear, leadership is a relationship.

There is good news and bad news.  The good news: employee engagement, empower organizational agility, ambidexterity, innovation… all of this can flourish in the rapidly changing world when the fundamental relationship between leaders and followers, helpers and clients, and providers and customers become more personalized and cooperative.

The bad news: continued deception, scandals, high turnover of disengaged talent, safety and quality problems in industry and health care, all the way to corruption and abuse of power at the highest levels of industry and politics, driven by financial expediency and the obsession with retaining power as primary success criteria… all of this will continue to happen as long as leader-follower relationships remain impersonal, transactional, and based on the roles and rules that have evolved in the current culture of management that still predominates in our hierarchical bureaucratic organizations

They write about four levels of the relationship continuum as follows:

  • Level Minus 1: Total impersonal domination and coercion
  • Level 1: Transactional role and rule-based supervision, service, and most forms of “professional” helping relationships. relies on rules, roles, and the maintenance of appropriate professional distance
  • Level 2: Personal cooperative, trusting relationships as in friendships and effective teams – relationships and group processes
  • Level 3: Emotionally intimate total mutual commitment

Unfortunately when the only goal is raising test scores or control we attract leaders who are at Level Minus 1 and sometimes Level 1.  When we get leaders who are only interested in adherence to rules and policies, control oriented, and we get a lot of Level 1.  Lacking connection, most decisions are made based on rules and regulations.  I agree that rules are important but students and staff react by being uncommitted when that is all you have.

I think the important thing to remember is that we are a people business.  People are messy and not inanimate products.  Their lives are not a machine with interchangeable parts.  James Comer, Yale said years ago, (I paraphrase) without a relationship no significant learning takes place.   See Daniel Pink’s book Drive or Deci and Harlow research for how to motivate knowledge workers.

Here are some reasons to read this book.

  1. TASK COMPLEXITY IS INCREASING EXPONENTIALLY – Teams will require other teams to share what works and what they know. Humble Leadership at all levels will be needed to link workgroups and teams. See Chief Joy Officer by Richard Sheridan
  2. THE CURRENT MANAGERIAL CULTURE IS MYOPIC, HAS BLIND SPOTS, AND IS OFTEN SELF-DEFEATING. All too often, problems aren’t in the “nodes” (individuals), but in the interactions (relationships). Downward communication often fails because employees neither understand nor trust what executives declare as the strategy or culture they want to promulgate. See Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc. for an antidote
  3. THERE ARE GENERATIONAL CHANGES IN SOCIAL AND WORK VALUES. Ask us who have been around for a while. Leadership has had to expand their repertoire to work with a more diverse group of professionals. And, I don’t mean only race and ethnicity.  Professionals see the work differently than they used to.  See Jennifer Abrams on Generational Savvy

Why do we need teams?  No one has all the knowledge in content or process.  Knowledge is important. Knowledge alone is insufficient.  You can have all the theory in the world but if you can’t use it in real time, with real people, and solving real problems, what good is it?  The future needs a new concept, Humble Leadership; which is built on Level 2 relationships of openness and trust.

Here are definitions of the new term personization. (not a typo) Personization is the process of mutually building a working relationship with a fellow employee, teammate, boss, subordinate, or colleague based on trying to see that person a whole. Personization is intrinsically a reciprocal interactive process.

Personizing has nothing to do with being nice, giving employees good jobs and working conditions, generous benefits, or flexible working hours. It has everything to do with building relationships that get the job done and that avoid the indifference, manipulation, or, worse, lying and concealing that so often arise in work relationships.

To be an effective leader, who builds and maintains positive relationships takes authenticity.  Be a person first, a role second.  You can’t fake this stuff.  Kids, colleagues, and community have great crap detectors.  Kids are the best at it.

Level 1 relationships assume social or professional distance. Level 1 relationships based on our various roles are the bulk of our daily routines. Level 2 is expressing, in actions and words, “I want to get to know you better so that we can trust each other in getting our jobs done better. This kind of relationship implies a deeper level of trust and openness in terms of

  • making and honoring commitments and promises to each other
  • agreeing to not undermine each other or harm what we have agreed to do
  • agreeing not to lie to each other or withhold information relevant to our task

As Amy Edmondson has pointed out in her influential work on Teaming, learning together is one of the best ways to “get to know each other,” because in that context the boss and the employee can give each other direct feedback and suggestions on how the work could be done better.

Level 1 – professionalism is the norm, but success demands relationships much more akin to Level 3. In workgroups Level 2 is critical to provide each member psychological safety, open communication, build trust, and, thereby, accomplish the task faster if not better.

A word of caution.  Level 3 relationships in the workplace can cause problems.  Intimacy or relationships that overstep boundaries can have disastrous consequences.  This is where harassment issues can start.

You will find several stories that illustrate Humble Leadership in the stories about Singapore and a Medical Center. These examples provide some models for how Level 2 relationships can be integrated into a school model. One thought was that you can not mandate change.  Well, you can mandate it but it won’t be implemented very well.  Leaders must make the case, explain the reasons for a change, or start a pilot program to see if it works.  A question the hospital asked, “Will this improve the quality of the total patient experience?”  To find the answer took a few committed individuals sharing their experience and data collection.  Once open trusting conversations occurred,  the error rates declined, people took notice and then the change was widely accepted.

It also took the leader to be on the floor, with nurses, and with patients.  Be a player, not only an observer.  I believe principals and leaders need to teach.  Get in the arena. Mark Twain once said, ”Anyone who has had a bull by the tail knows five or six things more than someone who hasn’t.”  Leaders who are aloof or distant and only manage will not develop the commitment and relationship necessary to move staff and schools forward.

Being with staff and students provides the opportunity to find out what they think about the school, what would they change to make it better, and attract people to a vision rather than trying to sell them.  In Twelve Step Programs, the Eleventh Tradition is:  Be a Program of Attraction, not Promotion.  I have tried to remember that when contemplating a change in schools.

There is always a danger when people are silent or afraid to speak.  Psychological Safety is foundational to create a learningful (yes, I heard that term from Art Costa years ago) school. Developing loyalty requires a foundation of mutual commitment, but the magic of loyalty relies on your getting to really know your people and what makes them tick. This is why learning together in a simulated environment becomes a crucial relationship-building activity.

Humble Leadership creates and is reinforced by Level 2 teaming even in highly structured hierarchies. There are three kinds of obstacles that we have observed:

  1. managerial cultures resisting newcomers’ efforts,
  2. leaders unwittingly undermining their own effort
  3. new CEOs overturning improvement programs that are foundations for Level 2 cultures.

Perhaps the toughest challenge for Humble Leadership is to avoid both group hubris (we/they) and Level 1 transactional distancing that can deepen intergroup conflict to the point that what started as growth ends in entropy.

Here are some of the trends, Edgar and Peter see in the future.

  • Context over content: Humble Leadership will be even more about content and process and less about content and expertise
  • Cultural heterogeneity: Humble Leadership will have to cope with tribalism and build relationships unbound by unconscious biases.
  • Distributed power: Humble Leadership will have to challenge individual abuse of power.
  • Mass customization: Humble Leadership will help groups become more agile, adaptive, and collaborative to tailor leadership to employees, stakeholders, and customers.
  • Dynamic organizational design: Humble Leadership will have to perpetually reconsider how to organize relationships and workgroups in a globally mobile world.
  • Virtual presence: Humble Leadership will involve being both physically present and virtually present as organizations become more globally distributed.

If everyone knows or can know, leaders are no longer sole experts, they’re just one of the crowd or one in the cloud!

Leaders will have to monitor their own beliefs and actions.  Humble Leadership Will Have to Challenge Individual Abuse of Power   Emergent humble leaders with better ideas must face their own temptation to think they are superior to others around them, especially in situations where they do outrank their prospective followers. As Robert Sutton,[Stanford], points out, bad behavior is five times more powerful than good behavior.

I think the follow few passages are very pertinent to education.  Learning to think in interpersonal and group process terms becomes a foundational building block of Humble Leadership. Suppose the learners had the primary responsibility to learn and the teacher’s role was providing a learning environment and tools, but not the syllabus or readings? It was discovered that teaching and learning about groups and interpersonal dynamics could indeed be greatly enhanced if the teacher, instead of “telling,” asked students to have real-time experiences and analyze them with the help of the teacher.

Humble Leadership ends with several exercises that will help understand the whole concept.  Edgar and Peter end with the following quote, “Humble Leadership means accepting vulnerability and building resiliency through Level 2 relationships.”