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Modesty As a New Leadership Skill?

All about leadership: Guest commentary by Nicole Neubauer, DACH responsible managing director, who talks about the importance of letting go of old habits, trusting others and being modest without losing face

Since mid-March 2020, the Corona crisis has kept us on our toes around the world and has completely turned our lives upside down: Unexpectedly sent us to the home office, isolated from teams and colleagues, the situation was completely new to everyone. Combined with the isolation of loved ones, concerns for risk groups and the challenge of addressing the blurring boundaries between professional and private life, with children in a home schooling, has presented us all with unexpected challenges. Not to mention the economic situation, which is still threatening for many of us. As always, it is people who lead through these crises: Whether as a politician, leader, employee, mother or father. In my daily work I deal a lot with the topic of personality (for example by teaching people about their strengths and weaknesses, in order to support them professionally so they can develop their potential). I particularly do that in regards to leadership skills that are needed when there is a demand for change. Corona has shown us all which politicians have calmly and competently led their countries through this crisis, hasn’t it?

You can’t achieve this change in leadership with old, tried and tested, hierarchical approaches. In a study with the IMD Business School in early 2017, we wanted to find out through a survey of more than 1,000 executives, which competencies and behaviors are important to successfully lead through the digital transformation. It was shown that this kind of behavior is now also important in the Corona era to successfully master the crisis:

– Adaptability: The willingness to change direction, to revise previously made decisions on the basis of new data and facts – without the fear of losing face in front of the employees – and always with the goal of maintaining adequate speed and momentum.

– Hyperawareness: To be a ‘truffle hog’– having a feeling for new trends and developments on the market, which might have consequences for the company.

– Fast action: In order to act with courage, take risks, accept feedback and learn from mistakes. This is not about ‘making mistakes’, but about recognizing them and identifying potential learnings.

Modesty counts

There is a crucial skill, which was also shown in our study – and it was definitely a surprise: Modesty. It was identified as one of the key competencies for executives who lead through ‘change’. In these times, it is important to motivate, step back and not to be a ‘know-it-all’, but to trust others. This is precisely the definition of modesty, which is characterized by a fundamentally honorable attitude. So for me it is less about the virtue of modesty but about the ability to recognize where one’s own knowledge has limits and where I, as a leader, should trust my team or my employees. And no matter the situation, I ultimately leave the decision to these employees if they have more knowledge than I do in a particular area and I do this without losing face. Only in this way will it be possible to make the necessary change – as an inner process of growth – successful.

What does modesty mean for the individual?

Many people associate the virtue of modesty with the following: Humble, minimalistic behavior, the ability of being generous to other people and being happy about it, to step back and see the perspective of the other person first, and only then yourself. Modesty is also an expression of solidarity, humility and gratitude, and can be experienced by those who’ve had abundance before. The Corona period was very educational here – in terms of going back to the basics. Standing together, asking for help and supporting others. I can see modesty as the result of my own awareness of dignity: It is time for future leaders to recognize that they have to leave the stage to others, and to pick up people with their skills and individual abilities.

Thus, dignity is the foundation on which a successful digital change in corporate relations can be built with modesty and trust. Speed and efficiency as the driving forces of past success are their enemies. Because these two factors prevent employees and teams from recognizing in decelerated time frames that a company’s concerns and incentives should be in harmony with the well-being of the various people involved, in order to ensure long-term corporate success. Without the parameter of modesty, dignity cannot happen.

Theses/ Questions for further exchange with Nicole Neubauer: 

  1. What are your personal attitudes towards the topic of modesty?
  2. Do you think it would be beneficial for your leaders or bosses to deal with this parameter of dignified action?
  3. What concrete examples can you think of to give more space to modesty in your team?

Make sure to join the discussion in our LinkedIn post! 

Nicole Neubauer, as DACH responsible managing director, accompanies selected projects and major customers with 28 years of cross-industry experience. Scientifically oriented, technological work and the development of digital business fields form the central focus of her work. The article is part of the book ‘WÜRDE.MACHT.SINN’, it’s available here.

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