Habits of an agile servant leader – Habit 4 (part 1): Humility
With habits like Awareness and Mindfulness, Empathy and Compassion, and Deep Listening and Observing, agile servant-leaders naturally engender a sense of Humility regarding themselves while having heartfelt Respect for those they are serving. Humility and Respect always go hand in hand as one cannot feel a deep sense of humility unless one truly respects others, and vice versa. They, together, make an important habit, the 4th habit in the series, for any agile servant-leaders who seek to succeed.
Because of the importance of these two qualities, we are going to examine each of these qualities in two separate posts. In this article, we will shed light on Humility by exploring what it means, examining behaviors of humble leaders, and how important a role Humility plays in Scrum Masters’ agile servant leadership skills.
OCTOBER 03, 2019 | SOFTWARE DEVELOPMENT, SCRUM, SERVANT LEADERSHIP | Reading time: 7 mins
Reproduced from Julian Stodd 2015
What is Humility?
Humility is “the feeling or attitude that you have no special importance that makes you better than others”.
With Robert K. Greenleaf’s definition of servant leadership in mind – which emphasized on leaders seeking to serve first, humility is an inevitable ‘ingredient’ that makes up true servant leadership’s work. A 2014 study by Catalyst – a Bloomberg’s research partner, showed humility is one of four critical leadership factors creating a workplace of trust, harmony, and commitment.
Humility usually connotes a leadership weakness because people often think of humility as “thinking less of oneself” – a quality that turns them into a low self-esteem “doormat” to everyone. However, it’s actually about “thinking of oneself less” – giving attention to others more while still possessing a strong sense of self-confidence (Joe Sabini 2018).
Martin Luther King Jr., a beacon of servant leadership (Reproduced from Tried & True 2018)
Behaviors of humble agile servant-leaders
Studies by Catalyst and Dr Robert Hogan from the University of California Berkeley (UC Berkeley) found humble leaders in general share the following behaviors:
“Try to see themselves accurately and listen to feedback from others in order to see themselves accurately”
This is a shared trait with listening, one of Robert K. Greenleaf’s 10 characteristics of servant leaders, and also Habit 3 of this blogpost series.
“Very open to new ideas from other people, and accept and learn from different points of view”
This is a shared attribute with openness, one of the five important Scrum values.
Reproduced from Orthodox Thought For The Day, 2015
“Appreciate the strengths and contributions of other peoples, understanding that they have something to contribute”
It is another shared trait with one of Robert K. Greenleaf’s 10 characteristics of servant leaders – Commitment to the Growth of People.
Also, it has very close definition with that of Scrum value of respect:
“Respect involves taking a second look at how we view others, to develop a sincere appreciation for the unique capabilities that they contribute” (Scrum Alliance 2017).
“Seek contributions of others to overcome challenges and limitations together”
In Scrum, this would be described as the courage to “work on tough problems” as a team.
“Leaders with high scores on humility are more coachable than those with lower scores.”
In Agile culture, this means Scrum Masters are coachable coaches. They coach others and simultaneously are easy to be coached by others.
Although these can be deemed small characteristics found among humble leaders in general, the tremendously-positive influences they have on the leaders themselves and the organizations they are working for at large is scientifically-proven.
As a result, it is worthwhile for servant-leaders in Agile software development environment to learn and apply them in practice so that they can thrive and transform their effectiveness in the same way.
Humility’s foes: Arrogance and Charisma
Arrogance is the state of being “unpleasantly proud and behaving as if you are more important than, or know more than, other people” (Cambridge English Dictionary).
In Robert Hogan’s terms, arrogance makes “the most destructive leaders” and “is the critical factor driving flawed decision makers” who “create the slippery slope to organizational failure”.
Arrogance is a quality most found in charismatic leaders, who were much sought-after traditionally. Charismatic and arrogant leaders being favored over the past years was due to the misbelief they’re more talented than humbler fellows.
However, many researchers point out that “charismatic leaders leave a trail of chaos and ruin”.
Reproduced from Tilt 365 (2019)
According to Dr Robert Hogan (2018), charisma and arrogance ruin leadership in many ways:
- They make narcissists and psychopaths, “specializing” in manipulating others for their own benefits – instead of cooperating with others for the benefits of many.
- They make promises they cannot keep, overspend company’s resources, and under-estimate how difficult it will be to implement their vision.
- They “ignore any kind of negative feedback and objection”, making them even more susceptible to repeating the unhealthy behaviors at the cost of the company and its members.
Dr Robert Hogan (2018) said the only way to get better and achieve “continuous improvement” – the key principle underpinning most Agile frameworks like Scrum and Kanban, is to be open to feedback. It can be said that charisma and arrogance will bring about total disastrous performances from an Agile point of view.
Therefore, Agile servant-leaders are advised to avoid being cocky so that they can embody and help others practice the true Agile spirit successfully.
Humility in practice
A study on the personality of CEOs of some of the top Fortune 1,000 Companies shows that what makes these companies successful as they are is the CEOs’ humility. These CEOs share two sets of qualities seemingly contradictory but always back each other up strongly:
- They are “self-effacing, quiet, reserved, even shy”. They are modest. And they admit mistakes.
- At the same time, behind this shy-away look, they are “fiercely ambitious, tremendously competitive, otherly tenacious”. They have strong self-confidence and self-esteem. And they’re willing to listen to feedback and solicit input from knowledgeable subordinates.
According to Dr Robert Hogan (2018), these characteristics of humility create “an environment of continuous improvement”.
Sir Robert Hogan shares about the importance of humility in leaders
In his book Delivering Happiness, CEO of Agile organization Zappos Tony Hsieh said:
“Be Humble is probably the core value that ends up affecting our hiring decisions the most. There are a lot of experienced, smart, and talented people we interview that we know can make an immediate impact on our bottom line. But a lot of them are also really egotistical, so we end up not hiring them.”
He also added that Zappos is “willing to make short-term sacrifices if we believe that the long-term benefits are worth it.”
Zappos’s story holds out 2 facts:
- Humility brings long-term benefits.
- The most important factor for successful organizations, especially Agile companies, is humility.
What we learn
Not only the CEO’s humble personality lands an Agile company on the top of the competition. It’s also the staff being truthfully humble that’s perceivably beneficial for the company in the long run. Since humility doesn’t discriminate against statuses of seniority, everyone in an Agile organization should learn to be genuinely humble, indeed.
Benefits of humility for agile servant-leaders
Benefit 1: Increase inclusiveness – the ground of trust
As mentioned earlier, the Catalyst study pinpoints humility as one of four most important factors creating a healthy workplace. It is because humility create “an environment where employees from different demographic backgrounds feel included” .
This feeling of inclusiveness makes people feel cared for, laying the stepping-stones for trust, harmony and commitment.
On the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the need for feeling inclusive and socially-belonged to is a prerequisite for asserting one’s ego. It means that as a member of the Scrum team, a Scrum Master can only shine brightly with their team members as a team. Never individually.
Social need is prerequisite to ego need. (Reproduced from Peachey Publications, 2018).
Benefit 2: Strengthen the bond with peers – the basis of well-being
In his TED Talk Be humble, Raymond Tang holds humility in high regards. It allows him to form “a lot richer connections” with people around him and get more genuinely and humbly interested in the background stories and experiences that make others unique.
Indeed, he is able to:
- listen and observe deeply
- have greater sense of awareness and mindfulness (“capacity to remain grounded, to be present”)
- (which in turn enables him to) develop empathy and compassion for his peers
He said “instead of promoting my glory and success, it is so much more satisfying to promote the success and glory of others”.
Well-known leadership and EQ expert Karl Albrecht would agree with Raymond Tang, as he found humility allows one to relate effectively with others and improve interpersonal relationships to a great extent, which contributes significantly to their mental health.
Benefit 3: Deepen awareness
Humility has a strong impact on self-awareness and awareness of others. It is found that “leaders with humility often seek out feedback from others as they strive to identify how they can be more effective”. Moreover, high self-awareness together with humility “empowers a leader to care mightily for the welfare of others and the best interests of the organization”.
What’s more, it enables them to “recognize the importance of constantly improving, learning, and growing”. In other words, humility among agile servant-leaders supports the Scrum’s agile mindset of continuous improvement through deepened awareness.
Reproduced from Connie J. Sun 2019
Benefit 4: Improve empathy
Humility is the “launching base” for empathy, so to speak. In humility, there is a genuine care for others that one is willing to listen to others deeply. Leaders are more willing to connect with themselves and others at an authentic level that it improves empathy for themselves and others.
“Leadership effectiveness is often dependent upon the leader’s ability to clearly understand the hearts and minds of others”.
Therefore, through empathy, humility increases agile servant-leaders’ effectiveness at work, paving the way for solid trust in Agile teams.
Benefit 5: Increase staff engagement
It is shown that humility:
- creates the spirit of commitment among employees
- increases loyalty, productivity, and customer service rating
- reduces staff turnover
With humility, agile servant-leaders can then “build projects around motivated individuals” (the fifth Agile principle).
Motivated Axon Active staff have a lot of fun in a company trip.
How to cultivate humility among agile servant-leaders
Follows are some tips that agile servant-leaders can use to cultivate humility, according to Cam Caldwell, & Comfort O. Okpala (2018).
- Develop self-awareness through practices of mindfulness and deep listening.
- Look for deeper layers of meanings when listening and communicating with others, with the purpose of improving one’s awareness and understanding about others.
- Learn to love yourself and others despite the flaws of your own and those of others. This act forms the ground for self-empathy and empathy for others.
In this article, we have walk you through the meaning of humility from various perspectives, how a humble agile servant-leader behave that will allow her/him to garner success in agile work environment, some examples of humility in practice, as well as the disadvantages of arrogance and charisma as opposed to humility. We hope that the article has given you a more insightful understanding of humility in agile servant leadership and inspire you to embody your understanding about this quality to make your workplace a better place!
Up next, we’re discovering Respect, the other important quality of Habit 4! 🙂
Recognizing the importance of humility in agile workplace, Axon Active puts a lot of emphasis on an Agile culture built on humility among both management and staff members. In fact, our humility-based culture as an Agile software development company in Vietnam is constructed based on the openness to mistakes and openness to learning from constructive feedback from others. This in turn creates a trustful work environment that lays the groundwork for Axon Active‘s long-term development and long-term partnerships with employees and clients.
Inspired to work with a humble and reliable partner for your latest tech products? Head for the Ultimate Guide to start Software Development Outsourcing and go agile with us now!
- All Strategy. (n.d.). What is Servant Leadership? Retrieved from All Strategy
- Amy L. Eva. (2017). How to Stay Empathic without Suffering So Much. Retrieved from University of California, Berkeley – Greater Good Magazine
- April Wensel (2018). Agile2018: Compassion in Tech and Business | Women in Agile [Recorded by Accenture’s Agile Amped Podcast]. San Diego, USA.
- Barry Overeem. (2015). The Scrum Master as a Servant-Leader. Retrieved from Scrum.org
- BlogIn. (n.d.). How to increase productivity of your team. Retrieved from BlogIn
- Cam Caldwell, & Comfort O. Okpala. (2018). Humility and Emotional Intelligence – Keys to Interpersonal Effectiveness. Retrieved from ResearchGate
- Cambridge Dictionary. (n.d.). tact definition. Retrieved from Cambridge Dictionary
- CareerBuilder®. (2012). Swearing at Work Can Harm Your Career Prospects, Finds CareerBuilder Survey. Retrieved from CareerBuilder USA
- Catalyst. (2018). Infographic: Inclusion Matters. Retrieved from Catalyst
- Claire Rumore, & Moses Ma. (2016). Mindfulness and the Agile Process. Retrieved from Future Lab
- clemanskeonw. (n.d.). Servant leadership – Inspiring others. Retrieved from Tes Blendspace
- Dr Carol O’Connor. (2015). Secrets of great leaders – 50 ways to make a difference. USA: John Murray Learning.
- Dr Diana Raab. (2017). Deep Listening In Personal Relationships. Retrieved from Psychology Today
- Men’s Fellowship Network (n.d.). Deep listening – Thich Nhat Hanh. Retrieved from Men’s Fellowsihp Network
- Everett L. Worthington Jr. (2007). The Paradox of Humility. Retrieved from UC Berkeley – Greater Good Science Center
- Geoff Watts. (2010). Getting RE-TRAINED To Be A ScrumMaster. Retrieved from Inspect and Adapt.
- Geoff Watts. (2013). Scrum Mastery: From Good to Great Servant-Leadership. Scrum Mastery Quote Cards. Inspect & Adapt Ltd.
- Gerald Ainomugisha. (n.d.). Your Complete Guide to Servant Leadership. Retrieved from 6Q, the employee engagement survey system
- Helio Fred Garcia. (2018). Leadership: Humility as Antidote to Arrogance. Retrieved from DEIRDRE BREAKENRIDGE
- Jeff Sutherland. (2014). Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time. New York: Penguin Random House UK.
- Jon Kabat-Zinn. (2017). Jon Kabat-Zinn: Defining Mindfulness. Retrieved from Mindful.org
- Joshua Partogi. (2017). What is Servant Leadership. Retrieved from Scrum.org
- Julie Corliss. (2014). Mindfulness meditation may ease anxiety, mental stress. Retrieved from Harvard Health Publishing – Harvard Medical School
- Jurgen Appelo. (2016). Managing for Happiness – Games, tools, and practices to motivate any team. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.
- Ken Gosnell. (2017). The 5 Attributes of Servant Leaders. Retrieved from LinkedIn
- Ken Schwaber, & Jeff Sutherland . (2017). Scrum Guide – The Definitive Guide to Scrum: The Rules of the Game. Retrieved from https://scrumguides.org
- Larry C. Spears. (2010). Character and Servant Leadership: Ten Characteristics of Effective, Caring Leaders. The Journal of Virtues & Leadership, 1(1), 25-30. Retrieved from Regent University
- Laura Colby. (2017). Women and Tech. Retrieved from Bloomberg
- Lyssa Adkins. (2010). Coaching agile teams: A companion for ScrumMasters, Agile coaches, and project managers in transition. Addison-Wesley Professional.
- Michael Sahota, & Olaf Lewitz. (2014). Co-Aching: How to Use Compassion to Transform your Effectiveness. Agile Alliance’s Agile2014. Orlando: Agile Alliance. Retrieved from Agile Alliance
- Neal E. Chalofsky . (2010). Meaningful Workplaces: Reframing How and Where We Work. San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass – A Wiley Imprint.
- Orthodox Thought For The Day. (2015). Bammboo humility. Retrieved from Orthodox Thought For The Day
- Peachey Publication. (2018). APPLYING MASLOW’S HIERARCHY OF NEEDS TO THE USE OF EDUCATIONAL TECHNOLOGY. Retrieved from Peachey Publication
- Philip Yafee. (n.d.). THE 7% RULE: FACT, FICTION, OR MISUNDERSTANDING. 2011(October (2011)), Pages 1-5. Retrieved from ACM’s Ubiquity – peer-reviewed Web-based magazine
- President Ezra Taft Benson. (n.d.). Beware of Pride. Retrieved from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
- Rasmus Hougaard, & Jacqueline Carter. (2018). Leading with Less Ego. Retrieved from Harvard Business Review
- Robert K. Greenleaf. (n.d.). The servant as leader. Retrieved from Centre for Servant Leadership
- Scrum Alliance. (2017). Scrum Theory and Values. Retrieved from Scrum Alliance
- Scrum Inc. (2014). Happiness Metric – The Wave of the Future. Retrieved from Scrum Inc.
- Shelley D. Lane, Ruth Anna Abigail, & John Casey Gooch. (2016). Communication in a Civil Society. New York, USA: Routledge.
- Stephen R. Covey. (1989, 2004). The 7 habits of highly effective people – Powerful lessions in personal change (25th Anniversary Edition). New York, USA: Simon & Schuster.
- The University of North Carolina Wilmington. (n.d.). Servant leadership questionnaire. Retrieved from The University of North Carolina Wilmington
- Thich Nhat Hanh. (2002). Teachings on Love. USA: Parallax Press.
- Tony Hsieh. (2010). Delivering Happiness – A path to profits, passion, and purpose. New York: Grand Central Publishing.
- University of California, Berkeley. (2019). What is Compassion? Retrieved from University of California, Berkeley
- University of Southern California. (2018). Leadership Style Quiz: Identify your Style. Retrieved from University of Southern California
- Ward Cunningham et al. (2001). Manifesto for Agile Software Development. Retrieved from Agile Manifesto