A Look at “Lead with Humility” 

by Ken Snyder 

With “Respect Every Individual,” the principle of “Lead with Humility” is the partner principle that together comprise the Cultural Enablers dimension of the Shingo 10 Guiding Principles. Since becoming Executive Director three years ago, my observation is that this principle has resulted in more questions and misunderstandings than any other principle.  

 Common Misunderstandings 

Admittedly, a lot of the confusion comes from a basic misunderstanding of two things: 

  1. what is effective leadership; and  
  2. what is the meaning of humility. 

 Unfortunately, too many people envision a command and control figure when they envision an effective leader. Our research proves that command and control may get results in the short-term, but it will not be sustainable over time. Again, too many people think humility means “meek” and/or “submissive,” and therefore, not demanding. Quite the contrary.  

 Our Definition 

The definition of “Lead with Humility” that we use in the Shingo Model is: 

 “One common trait among leading practitioners of enterprise excellence is a sense of humility. Humility is an enabling principle that precedes learning and improvement. A leader’s willingness to seek input, listen carefully and continuously learn creates an environment where associates feel respected and energized and give freely of their creative abilities. 

 Our research indicates that a leader who leads with this kind of humility can be even more demanding because of the respect elicited from her or his colleagues. 

 Steve Jobs & Ohno Taiichi 

The name most commonly evoked in voicing these misunderstandings is Steve Jobs. In reading various portraits of Jobs, I often read of a man who was open to the ideas of others, listened to others – at least as long as they suggested ideas that helped move the work forward, and he often was willing to admit it was the “team.” This was especially true after his return to Apple. Admittedly, Jobs was often not patient, and he was very demanding. Reading about Jobs reminds me a lot of what I have read about Ohno Taiichi, who was also not patient, and was also very demanding. But both of these leaders meet our definition in that both sought input, listened carefully, and continuously learned. 

 Existing Outstanding Materials 

This principle is blessed with an outstanding body of work which informs our understanding it and has guided us in how we define and teach it as a guiding principle. Let me share a few examples of existing outstanding materials: 

  1. Arbinger Institute (see https://arbingerinstitute.com/), and their works Leadership and Self-Deception and The Outward Mindset. 
  2. Servant Leadership, as taught by Robert Greenleaf and the Center for Servant Leadership (see https://www.greenleaf.org/). Greenleaf himself authored seven books on servant leadership, and many more have authored additional books based on Greenleaf’s work. 
  3. Institute for Mindful Leadership (see https://instituteformindfulleadership.org/) founded by Janice Marturano. This Institute is a non-profit organization that is dedicated to training and supporting leaders and potential leaders in the exploration of mindful leadership. 
  4. Edgar Schein and his work on “humble inquiry” (see, for example, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BOw0IDrKvuw).  

 We have seen Shingo Prize recipients who have adopted – along with their Shingo-related improvement efforts – one of the programs provided by Arbinger, the Center for Servant Leadership, and the Institute for Mindful Leadership. 

 An Action Verb 

When the Shingo Model was introduced in 2008, the Institute was careful in wording the guiding principles in such a way that the opening word of each guiding principle is an action verb. In this case, the action verb is “to lead.” 

 Suggested Changes 

The suggested changes are all based on the existing materials described above. Advocates of the Arbinger Institute suggest “Lead with an Outward Mindset.” Advocates of servant leadership suggest “Lead as a Servant.” And, advocates of Mindful Leadership suggest “Lead as a Mindful Leader.” All of these suggestions benefit from the existing body of work. All of these options seem to be effective tools in helping people understand how to apply the principle. 

 There are some common problems with each of these suggestions: 

  1. These existing bodies of work are similar but not identical. Each one is narrower than our current definition, and selection of one of these options would narrow the meaning and exclude important aspects of the principle. 
  2. Since we have seen Shingo Prize recipient organizations effectively use all of these resources, we feel it would be wrong to endorse one approach over the others. 
  3. All of these suggestions suffer from the same problem we currently face – that is, they will be confusing for people to understand. 

 Conclusion 

While the current confusion with the principle “Lead with Humility” suggests there is room for improvement, we are not confident that any of the suggested received to date will be any less confusing. And the suggestions will probably narrow the definition more than we would like. We are always open to suggestions. If you make a suggestion, please describe how your idea fits the intended meaning of the principle, and why your suggested phrasing of the principle helps you understand the principle better. 

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3 thoughts on “A Look at “Lead with Humility” ”

  1. The meaning of the principle cannot be found in the word “LEAD” or in the action verb “TO LEAD”. It in fact begs the question of how to do it. “To Lead” need not be stated. Everyone knows what a person in a position of leadership is supposed to do; leading is implicit to roles of this nature. It is more important to focus the principle on HOW IT GETS DONE.
    It should be goal driven or drive individuals toward an orientation focused on the future. It should impart meaning to the individuals and staff of the leader. It should create unity of community and a sense of belonging. It should deny a position of superiority (“To Lead” does not, and as HUMBLE behavior would imply). It should place the correct amount of importance in mental well-being. It should avoid exploiting inferior complexes of individuals and instead focus on beneficial outcomes that such a principle would evoke.
    Shingo Institute, you must deny that improvement cannot NOT be made — in other words, embrace the virtue of change that is required in this instance. Your responsibility is to be courageous, even if it means being “disliked” by a few Shingo Prize Recipient organizations (unless business importance has superceded authentic improvement). {Ref: The Courage To Be Disliked”, I. Kishimi, F. Koga}. You have the ability to supercede the confusion imparted above by focusing on clarity of meaning and use of specific words.
    I suggest the principle be changed to:
    To Connect With and Encourage Humanity
    This meets all the aforementioned requirements of servitude, mindfulness, and an outward mindset.
    Respectfully submitted,
    Samanthia Rousos
    Process Improvement Manager
    ProMedica Laboratories

  2. Excellent article, I help a lot to understand these subjective principles of leading with humility and respect for each individual

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