“Heroic” Leadership will Underperform Humble Leadership in the Future

I am 100% certain that you have first-hand experience with a “heroic” leader somewhere in your life. It may or may not come as a surprise that this type of leader may be less effective in our volatile and changing world than a humble leader who focuses on relationships – both with people and between people. Today we are honored to share this post by Ed and Peter Schein who are celebrating the release of their new book, Humble Leadership, this week. Enjoy!


Business history provides numerous examples of the heroic innovator who proposes something new and better. The image of the go-it-alone innovator, risking everything with extraordinary confidence and perseverance, will remain central to our heroic leader myth. What we question is whether this model of the alone-at-the-top chief decider, where “the buck stops,” will remain as salient in the future.


In innovation-driven industries, where VUCA is accepted reality, we believe that as a company matures, the isolated, heroic leader will ultimately suffer from lack of complete information to make the right decisions. We have argued that what distinguishes the humble leader, at any level of the organization, is talent at developing optimal “Level 2 relationships” that seamlessly provide more and better information flow required to innovate at high pace.


An individualistic, competitive, destiny-is-in-your-hands-alone mindset limits a leader’s ability to handle uncertainty and volatility, since no individual will be able to process the volume of data nor assimilate all the dynamic inputs that are vital to effective strategy. Brilliant, creative, charismatic iconoclasts will still step forward to propose something new and better. The future we see, however, is where this leadership brilliance is expressed more in “we together” cooperation than in an “I alone” delusion, particularly as organizations grow and become more diversified. This is depicted in Figure 7.1 below.

Humble Leadership

Figure 7.2 takes the organizational perspective: We see roles (bottom of the vertical axis) that define the hierarchy (left of horizontal axis) and the respective lanes of activity as of secondary importance to the humble leader’s Level 2 relationship overlays. All organizations face ebbs and flows of budget surplus and deficit. This invariably forces competition between divisions and functions for allocating tightly controlled resources. The roles themselves represent defined budget allocations (“Can we afford one more product manager?”). In this context, professionally distant relationships between roles across divisional lines are entirely appropriate (“Schmooze just close enough to be ready to co-opt their headcount in the next reorg”).


In the upper right of Figure 7.2, the emphasis is on dynamic relationships between flexible groups. By “living system model” we are describing an organization that responds to externalities by rapidly shifting resources (think of a body dynamically directing blood flow to the muscles that need it).


The system responds holistically and cooperatively, shifting energy on the fly, regardless of roles, to adapt to a new threat or opportunity. By allowing the affected part of the organization (the body) to respond in the way that best fits the immediate need, the system lets the affected part manage its own resources and regulate its own energy use. Shifting resources dynamically is key to the system’s success.


Humble leaders are there to “read the room,” both the situation and the people involved, then to set the direction to something new and better given the volatile circumstances, and then to strengthen the Level 2 relationships that ensure complete information required to enable the flexibility to never stop adapting.


About Authors

Edgar H. Schein is Professor Emeritus from the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management. He’s a pioneer in organizational studies, organizational culture and leadership, process consulting, career development. Ed’s contributions to the practice of O.D. date back to the early 1960s and continue with the recent publication of Organizational Culture and Leadership 5th edition and now Humble Leadership, co-authored with Peter A. Schein, co-founder of OCLI.org who brings 30 years of hands-on experience in large and small companies leading growth initiatives in Silicon Valley.


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