Humility in Leadership Helps Elevate, Empower Others

By Angelo McClain, PhD, LICSW

Angelo McClain

In a few weeks, I will participate in the National Association of Deans and Directors’ (NADD) annual conference. I always enjoy connecting with the deans and directors of the schools of social work. As I think about the quality of leadership among them, I’m reminded of the importance of humility in social work leadership and how so many of our deans and directors personify this trait.

There are many attributes social work leaders must develop to have the transformative social, political and economic impact our world so desperately needs. When discussing the value of humility in leadership, it is important to highlight how far-reaching the effects of humble leadership can be. A study published in the Journal of Management concluded that leaders who are humble are far more likely to delegate and innovate. As a result, organizational performance and employee satisfaction improves, while turnover decreases.

Humble leaders have successfully tempered egotism and embraced a leadership perspective that seeks to elevate everyone, fostering within their organizations hope, efficacy, resilience and optimism. These leaders believe in human development and are continuously trying to improve and learn.

In my leadership journey, I’ve developed a deeper understanding of the importance of accepting feedback, acknowledging mistakes, asking others for help, actively listening, showing care, and reframing communication.

Accepting feedback: Humble leaders understand that feedback, even constructive or negative feedback, can help them grow and expand their skills. They use feedback to plan next steps toward improvement.

Acknowledging mistakes: Humility sometimes requires vulnerability and the courage to acknowledge mistakes. The best leaders are willing to admit when they are wrong and view mistakes as learning opportunities.

Asking others for help: A humble leader recognizes the inherent value in all employees and their perspectives, and remains open to asking others for help and ideas.

Actively listening: A challenge for leaders is how to convey to staff that they genuinely want to hear what they have to say. Humble leaders understand how important the thoughts and opinions of others are to organizational success.

Showing others you care about them: Humble leaders understand the importance of treating everyone with kindness, using people’s names when addressing them, asking employees how they’re doing, offering to help them with a task or project, and treating everyone as an important member of the team.

Reframing communication to sound less authoritative: Humble leaders use language that helps guide employees to make the best decisions on their own, often simply listening and asking probing questions.

Humility in social work leadership begins with the idea that all people have value, and it’s based on who they are rather than on their title in the organization. A leader’s job is to increase the value of the members on their team. Humble leaders demonstrate quiet confidence in their own value, leveraging their intellect, personality, thoughts, experiences, and accomplishments to elevate and empower others.

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