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Best Books to Buy: "Humble Leadership" by Edgar and Peter Schein - GoLeanSixSigma.com

This month’s book is Humble Leadership: The Power of Relationships, Openness, and Trust by Edgar and Peter Schein.

About the Book:
Humble Leadership - GoLeanSixSigma.com

“This book proposes a relational view of leadership as a process of learning, sharing, and directing new and better things to do in the dynamic interpersonal and group processes that increasingly characterize today’s organizations.”

Does the book title conjure up a sweet, grandmotherly boss? Does it suggest a humble-pie-eating manager? Wipe those images from your mind since that’s not what the authors are referring to. One example of Humble Leadership comes from Singapore which is an authoritarian dictatorship. Another comes from the military which traditionally runs on unquestioned hierarchy. Humble Leadership is not about being nice. It’s not even confined to formally recognized leaders.

The End of Vertical Hierarchy

Humble Leadership offers an antidote to arrogant leadership, but it’s also the antithesis of the seemingly more attractive leader-as-hero. Whether it’s the sole, revered visionary or simple old-fashioned hierarchy they make clear why it’s not going to help us in the future.

Old forms of leadership may have worked when technology was nascent and leaders held power over vital information, but our current age is characterized by rapid-paced, technological change and “messy complex problems.” No one person has all the information needed to make good, timely decisions.

The speed of change, complexity of tasks and constant disruption requires organizations to be nimble and ready to pivot. To do that employees have to be as networked and facile as the technology they rely on. To achieve that level of connectedness, Edgar and Peter Schein provide a guide to Humble Leadership.

Different Leader-Relationship Types

To understand the concept, it’s important to know the authors’ ranking of work relationships. They’ve defined four levels while highlighting what’s needed for effective workplace communication.

  • Level -1 (Negative 1) — Fear: Totally impersonal relationships characterized by domination and coercion. An example would be illegal immigrants working in a sweatshop being threatened with deportation if they complain about working conditions.
  • Level 1 — Distance: Transactional relationships characterized as role and rule-based supervision and service. An example would be dealing with doctors and lawyers where there’s an expected level of social and professional distance.
  • Level 2 — Openness: Relationships that acknowledge the whole person characterized by a deeper level of trust and openness. An example would be how we deal with friends and family. (Ideal)
  • Level 3 — Intimacy: Close relationships characterized by love and emotional attachment. Examples could range from extremely close friendships to office romance and nepotism.

Openness: Relationships that acknowledge the whole person characterized by a deeper level of trust and openness.

Transactional Organizational Culture

What the authors see a lot of in corporate America is Level 1 relationships. These transactional relationships go hand-in-hand with formal hierarchy. In organizations characterized by Level 1 culture, leadership is solely responsible for the direction of the company, communication is top-down and employees are expected to execute a prescribed game plan.

In these types of organizations, the authors report mistrust of leadership and a higher potential for employee burnout. They point to recent scandals at Volkswagen and Wells Fargo as extreme examples of what can go wrong in Level 1 cultures. Leadership dictated unrealistic goals, turned a deaf ear to employee warnings and nearly brought down 2 venerable institutions.

Impact of Level 2 Relationships

The authors propose that leaders develop Level 2 relationships with subordinates and colleagues in order to build environments that ensure success given today’s workplace challenges. This does not equate to “soft” or nice leadership. It means forming relationships with others in order to increase the level of trust and reduce the amount of fear. The more fear in an organization, the less likely employees are to share vital information. The less sharing of information, the more likely leadership is to make faulty or late decisions.

The assumption is that “leadership exists in all corners and levels of all organizations” and since we rely on each other to make the right decisions, quickly, it is critical to support and encourage this interchange. When leaders initiate the kinds of conversations that allow all levels to see each other as whole people, employees feel safe to contribute. The result is groups and work teams solving problems together. Without these active networks, organizations don’t have the information to thrive in the marketplace.

The assumption is that “leadership exists in all corners and levels of all organizations” and since we rely on each other to make the right decisions, quickly, it is critical to support and encourage this interchange.

A Whole New Word

Putting a finer point on what it takes to build Level 2 relationships, the authors coined the term “personization.” They define it as “the process of mutually building a working relationship with a fellow employee, teammate, boss, subordinate or colleague based on trying to see that person as a whole, not just the role that he or she may occupy at the moment.” (They considered the existing word “personalization” but decided against it since it’s come to mean “customization.”)

Again, it’s not about becoming “besties” with your work mates. You don’t even have to like everyone you work with. It’s about providing “psychological safety” such that you can get work done faster and better.

It’s about providing “psychological safety” such that you can get work done faster and better.

Case Studies

The stories of Humble Leadership in action come from a number of unlikely sources:

  • In Singapore, an authoritarian dictatorship, “early leaders…and their colleagues took to building a modern city-state out of an economically declining colony.” The authors describe the methods and journey of these leaders and maintain, “Humble Leadership contributed to Singapore’s economic success!”
  • Virginia Mason’s medical center transitioned to a Level 2 culture after coalescing around a shared vision of the future. It’s a well-documented Lean transformation story, but the authors illuminate the role of Humble Leadership in their success.
  • The U.S. Military story is a great example since it’s a place “in which Level 2 relationships seem most out of place.” This is the account of how a nuclear submarine with a demoralized culture became a “high-morale, effective, proud Level 2 organization” through Humble Leadership.

These are great examples in part because they emerge from unexpected sources. They showcase the power and possibility of “personization.” Other stories range from efforts at auto manufacturer Saab, early days at Sun Microsystems, to the nonprofit wildlife protection efforts of The Massachusetts Audubon Society, all detailing the lessons from and the positive impact of cooperative leadership.

From Transactional to Personal

Since Humble Leadership is key to thriving in an age of accelerating systemic change, it’s important to understand how to make it happen. In the face of competitiveness and one-upmanship how does one pivot to a culture of empowerment and interdependence? On a simple level, it involves talking to people with a “spirit of inquiry.”

Countermeasures range on a continuum from making eye contact to taking employees to lunch. The point is to convey to one another, “I see you.” They make the point that this is different from “I like you” or inviting people over for dinner. While we are often eager to “power-through” agendas, it’s more effective to build time into the start of meetings for simple exchange especially when bringing new members into the group. Just enough to see each other as “whole people.”

They make the point that this is different from “I like you” or inviting people over for dinner.

Getting Proficient at Humble Leadership

In the last chapter, the authors outline a self-directed program for becoming a Level 2 Leader. It’s a 3-part curriculum described down to task-level detail.

  1. Read Books: Deepen your understanding of Humble Leadership by reading a curated list of books.
    • The authors describe 10 books including what each adds to the conversation
  2. Establish Current State: Do some homework to understand the current state of your work relationships and build a plan to move them more fully into Level 2.
    • The authors provide tools and guidance on how to embrace the right mindset, how to uncover your own biases and realize your blind spots
  3. Practice: Try out new behaviors by conducting “Empathy Walks” and learn by doing your own fieldwork.
    • The authors provide sample questions to pose to others and step-by-step instructions on how to conduct your own experiential learning and benefit from Level 2 relationships

Edgar Schein’s Impact in the World

This is a deceptively simple concept and Humble Leadership rounds out the trilogy on the theme he started with his remarkable book Humble Inquiry. It’s impossible to overstate the contributions of Edgar Schein to the field of organizational development, and how great it is that his son has become a dynamic co-author. Books with “humble,” “gentle” and “relationship” in the title can seem out of place in a world bent on disrupting industries and capturing market share but thanks to the Scheins they are inextricably interlinked.

Reading these cases and learning about the people and organizations touched by Edgar Schein and his son Peter leaves the reader with profound appreciation for the impact this nonagenarian, and now his son, have had in the world. We spend a huge chunk of our waking hours at our jobs and thanks to Edgar and Peter Schein there’s a path to turning our organizations into arenas where we can flourish and do gratifying work. We should all endeavor to have such positive impact on the world.

About the Authors:

Edgar Schein is Professor Emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Sloan School of Management. He was educated at the University of Chicago, Stanford University, and Harvard University, where he received his Ph.D. in Social Psychology. He worked at the Walter Reed Institute of Research for four years and then joined MIT, where he taught until 2005. He has published over 25 books and Humble Inquiry won the 2013 business book of the year award from the Department of Leadership of San Diego University.

Mr. Schein is the 2009 recipient of the Distinguished Scholar-Practitioner Award of the Academy of Management, the 2012 recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Leadership Association, the 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award in Organization Development from the International OD Network, and has an Honorary Doctorate from the IEDC Bled School of Management in Slovenia.

Peter A. Schein is the cofounder and COO of the Organizational Culture and Leadership Institute in Menlo Park, CA. He provides counsel to senior management on organizational development challenges facing private and public sector entities worldwide. He is a contributing author to the 5th edition of Organizational Culture and Leadership (Schein, 2017).

Peter’s work draws on 30 years of industry experience in marketing and corporate development at technology pioneers. In his early career he developed new products at Pacific Bell and Apple. He led new product efforts at Silicon Graphics, Inc., Concentric Network Corporation (XO Communications), and Packateer (Blue Coat). Having spent over 20 years generating growth in silicon valley he held a position as Corporate Development Executive at Sun Microsystems (Oracle). Peter has a BA in Social Anthropology from Stanford, an MBA from Northwestern University.

Practical Tools and Concepts Covered:

  • Leadership
  • Organizational Development
  • Relationship Building
  • Communication
  • Inquiry
  • Conversations
  • Governance
  • Problem Solving
  • Experiential Learning

Who Should Read Humble Leadership?


Check out our Amazingly Awesome List for more book reviews as well as a comprehensive list of Lean Six Sigma and process improvement books!

Elisabeth Swan

Elisabeth is a Managing Partner at GoLeanSixSigma.com, the co-author of The Problem-Solver’s Toolkit and co-host of the Just-in-Time Cafe. For over 25 years, she's helped leading organizations like Amazon, Charles Schwab and Starwood Hotels & Resorts build problem-solving muscles with Lean Six Sigma to achieve their goals.