Humility in leadership, blah blah…


If I was given a penny for each time I read or heard that humility is key to authentic leadership, my accountant would be one happy lady indeed.


[mass noun] The quality of having a modest or low view of one’s importance:

‘he needs the humility to accept that their way may be better’


The John Lewis story

This morning I went to hear Andy Street speak at the Said Business School in Oxford. In October 2016 Street stepped down from his role as MD of John Lewis to focus on a political career in the West Midlands.

Reciprocate, a new-ish local business network that aims to support local communities, had invited Street to share the story of the John Lewis partnership to an audience of 200 local business people and it was a sell-out.

For those of you who like me didn’t know this; the John Lewis partnership is the biggest industrial co-operative in the UK. It has 92,000 employees or ‘partners’ who own the business. There are no external shareholders and so the company answers only to itself.

I found myself thinking, How on earth do 92,000 people on the work floor exert any kind of decision making power? and so I asked the question. 

John Lewis operates through councils at local and national level. Representatives bring ideas, issues and feedback to the attention of leaders all the way up to the executive team. A company wide gazette is a powerful feedback mechanism that works both ways and functions as a barometer of the organisational mood.

“Partners have the power to send their senior leaders packing”, Street told the audience. The power of the model is that it is an “imperfect democracy”, where senior leaders still have the ability to make difficult decisions at the expense of a minority but cannot go against the wishes of the majority without consequence.

Speaking truth to power

All this suggests that people are comfortable raising issues and feeding back difficult news, and that is an achievement. We will of course have to take Street’s word for how well this works in practice, but the fact remains that John Lewis is a respected brand both as a retailer and an employer. Street himself seemed fully signed up to and comfortable with the idea of colleagues lower down the hierarchy speaking truth to his power.

What then, is the secret ingredient Andy Street used in his years at the top in John Lewis?

You guessed it, humility. “Don’t believe your own publicity”, he told me after the event. “The moment you do, you are in trouble”.

So far, so familiar. But then he added that the key moment when he realised what this actually meant came when he was leading a project in 2001 and it was failing.

Disorienting dilemma

Being humble means different things to different people – try it, ask a few. Then there is that wonderful thing called self-deception, designed to keep us from living up to our own standards. You might also be labouring under the impression that you are a humble being, but those around you have, well, a different definition of the same. So how do you know?

What Street described happened in 2001 is what we coaches refer to as a disorienting dilemma: an insight or situation that requires you to re-evaluate some very important ideas you have been holding on to as The Truth. Discovering that as a leader you are not, can can never be, The One With All The Answers may come as a bit of a shock and certainly qualifies as one.

Learning the meaning of humility is not the same as being humiliated, even if it involves making yourself vulnerable to others’ input. For those who understand the difference, it becomes a liberating experience, but those who don’t see the distinction will struggle.


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