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Humble Leadership

Humble Leadership and Culture

  • 29 November 2018
  • Posted by Marcella Bremer

Guest Post by Kimberley Barker

When you're looking at developing a great organizational culture, here's a great book for inspiration! That's why I'm pleased to share this review, written by Kimberley Barker.

The book "Humble Leadership, The Power of Relationship, Openness, and Trust" shares Ed and Peter Schein’s vision of Humble Leadership and the relationship theory that serves as its foundation. They share stories that give the reader an insight into what Humble Leadership is and what it is not. Then, they discuss trends that they see reinforcing here-and-now humility, personization (or the personal relational emphasis), group sense-making, and team learning; all key components of Humble Leadership. The book ends with a superb list of further reading, self-analysis, and skill building to enhance your own Humble Leadership proficiency.

Why humble leadership?

The Scheins share why we need a new leadership model. The reasons include:

Task complexity is increasing exponentially. Organizations are dealing with an increasing rate of change (climate, specialization, etc.), the degree of global interconnectedness, multiculturalism, and the pace of technological advances. Teamwork, collaboration, and relationships will be required to help organizations create the “open socio-technical system” with constantly changing social and business context that need a “spirit of inquiry” approach.

The current managerial culture is myopic, has blind spots, and is often self-defeating. Gone are the competitive individualistic cultures with a mythical leader and the machine model of hierarchical organization design. Adaptive and connected cultures of teamwork are now required to thrive in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world.

There are generational changes in social and work values. Today there is more talk of social responsibility and becoming stewards of our environment and planet. The idea of “servant leadership” captures this well. There is the growing emphasis of work being meaningful, purpose-based with employees using their full range of talents at work, not just being there for money, bonuses, and things.

Three relationship levels

leader are gone. Today’s world needs personal relationship based leadership. The bad news is that we still have those who are leading transactionally. This is evidenced by various issues including; corruption and abuse of power, quality, safety, and disengaged talent. Many times, the problem boils down to egos out of control.

The Scheins also define relationships. A relationship is by their definition an interactive concept. For a relationship to exist there must be some symmetry in mutual expectations. The authors share relationship continuums that explain different “levels” of culturally defined relationships. These levels are:

  • Level Minus 1: Total impersonal domination and coercion
  • Level 1: Transactional role and rule-based supervision, service, and all forms of helping relationships.
  • Level 2: Personal cooperative, trusting relationships as in friendships and in effective teams.
  • Level 3: Emotionally intimate total mutual commitments.

Level 3 Positive leaders and cultures

Level 3 is a deepening of the relationship that goes beyond the Level 2 connection. It is more emotionally charged, and implies all of the trust and openness of Level 2. In addition, Level 3 assumes that we will actively support each other as needed and actively displays emotional and loving behavior towards each other. The distinction between Level 2 and 3 can be tricky. While there are still boundaries, there is a level of extraordinary cooperation and almost a sense of “super-empathy.” I have experienced a Level 3 work relationship twice in my 30+-year career and they were very special.

The Singapore Story

Having recently visited Singapore, and being so impressed with what I saw of the country, I was very excited to read chapter three ‘Humble Leadership in Governance: The Singapore Story.’ Many people view Singapore as an authoritarian government, however, the impression I got from the people who live there (and I questioned many people on the street, subway, restaurants, etc.) was that this is not their impression of their government. I am still amazed when I think of the Singapore Changi airport. It ran like a well-oiled machine, with some areas fully automated, some areas being partially automated, other areas with high-end stores, and amazing artwork and decoration. I witnessed what the United States will look like in many areas as we continue down the road of digital disruption. The residents of Singapore are happy to live with certain things (like quite a few rules to abide by, cameras all over the country, etc.) for a safe, clean, place to live that truly takes care of their citizens.

Humble Leadership empowered Singapore’s heads of state to transform the country’s economic development. Here are some lessons, taken from chapter three of Humble Leadership:

The main leaders of Singapore created a cooperative group that had open trusting relationships with each other.

They created a long-range plan of developing the best talent in the country by creating careers that were comparable with what those alumni could have achieved in elite private sector positions.

Open and trusting relationships were valued at every level of the governance structure and its associated economic and political structures. The short-term use of arbitrary power in governance can be justified if it is to solve a serious socio-technical survival problem.

A culture built around Humble Leadership is inevitability subjected to various challenges as the organization grows, ages, and scales. Leaders need to be wary of the eroding forces of protecting people and conventions rather than protecting the level 2 openness that catalyzes continuous adaption.

What you ignore, becomes the culture

The book shares many examples of Humble Leadership in action. One example is Seattle’s Virginia Mason Medical Center that transformed their medical center into a level two culture. I really resonated with the analogy of how important the main leader’s vision was, and how he personally facilitated the implementation of his vision with a myriad of interventions. The intervention is a very important tool when creating change.

There is another example of how a captain on a Unites States’ nuclear submarine turned followers into leaders through creating a Humble Leadership Level 2 caring culture. The book addresses how many military, industry, nonprofits, and healthcare teams have created a culture of Humble Leadership to have high performing teams. A quote from a leader named Dave really stood out for me, “You set the standard and then discourage behavior that doesn’t meet the standard. If people still don’t live up to that standard after being counseled (a set number of times – reviewer’s words), you weed them out, remembering that no matter what managers write or say, they demonstrate their true intent by what they reward and tolerate. You get what you settle for.” (Schein, 2018, pp. 71 & 72).

We need Humble Leadership in this world now more than ever. We want to create a world where every person can thrive, no matter his or her status, position, or title. This book will help the reader move in that direction with your team. I, humbly, ask you to buy the book Humble Leadership.

Humble Leadership book review on YouTube by Kim Barker

Humble Leadership webinar

Kimberley Barker, Ph.D. has taught at Cleary University since 2010 and teaches in the Master of Science in Culture, Change, and Leadership program. She has also taught at Eastern Michigan University, Management Department, since 2015. Dr. Barker can be reached at

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