How often do we hear leaders openly admit their mistakes, say that they’re wrong or be honest about their shortcomings? In other words, how often do we see leaders show their humble sides? Not nearly enough. Yet research shows that leaders who engage in these humble behaviors increase employee trust, cohesion and overall engagement. Here’s a little example from one of my clients and how a CEO’s humble behavior opened up a chance to mend and strengthen a few frayed work relationships.

The story involves the CEO, two senior managers and a hot issue they needed to handle. They all met and  by all accounts, had a productive discussion. The two managers left the meeting satisfied with what the CEO was going to do next. All good – except the CEO took an action that, in the managers’ minds, ran completely counter to their discussion. When the managers heard about the CEO’s action, they were dumbfounded. What made the matter more difficult is that the CEO never took the time to loop back to them to explain his action.

It took a while for all three individuals to sit down and sort things out. In the mean time, tensions mounted as the confusion lingered.  Everyone had plenty of opportunity to stoke the blaming and resentment fires.

When the CEO and two managers finally gathered to revisit their original discussion, the CEO explained that at that point in time, contrary to what the managers believed, he hadn’t settled on a course of action and had still been weighing his options. Right here the situation could have turned nasty, but to their credit, all three individuals stayed in a place of genuine curiosity. How could two people leave the room with the same understanding and the CEO leave with something so different in mind? (Tip: Recap and clarify next steps and agreements before meeting ends.)

In the end, the real key to resolving this conflict for the better was the humble and honest way in which the CEO admitted his part in creating a very confusing and tense situation with the managers. He apologized and also shared that he had a lot of work to do at being a better listener and making sure he was communicating clearly with his co-workers.

In that moment of humbleness, the mangers were quite surprised by their CEO’s honesty and his willingness to be that vulnerable in front of them. As a result, the managers gained added respect for the CEO, and the CEO experienced a new level of trust and openness with his managers. It was an important shift for all three individuals, who have moved forward with stronger and more resilient work relationships.

To recap, three things had to happen for this shift to occur:

  1. The CEO had to acknowledge the problem and then listen to his managers without letting his ego get in the way. No excuses. No rationalizations. No finger-pointing.
  2. The CEO had to own up to his action. He had to hold himself accountable for the miscommunication and stress he created with his associates. This is where he brought true humbleness to the table.
  3. Finally, the CEO had to admit and be willing to address areas where he needed to grow as a leader, another humble act.

Humbleness.  It is one true measure of a strong leader.