Humble Leadership: The Power of Relationships, Openness, and Trust

Humble Leadership: The Power of Relationships, Openness, and Trust

by Edgar H. Schein, Peter A. Schein


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Bestselling author and father of organizational culture studies, Edgar Schein and Peter Schein trail-blaze with a creative perspective on leadership that encourages vulnerability and empathy as a form of strength.

The more traditional forms of leadership that are based on static hierarchies and professional distance between leaders and followers are growing increasingly outdated and ineffective. As organizations face more complex interdependent tasks, leadership must become more personal in order to insure open trusting communication that will make more collaborative problem solving and innovation possible. Without open and trusting communications throughout organizations, they will continue to face the productivity and quality problems that result from reward systems that emphasize individual competition and "climbing the corporate ladder". Authors Edgar Schein and Peter Schein recognize this reality and call for a reimagined form of leadership that coincides with emerging trends of relationship building, complex group work, diverse workforces, and cultures in which everyone feels psychologically safe. Humble Leadership calls for "here and now" humility based on a deeper understanding of the constantly evolving complexities of interpersonal, group and intergroup relationships that require shifting our focus towards the process of group dynamics and collaboration. Humble Leadership at all levels and in all working groups will be the key to achieving the creativity, adaptiveness, and agility that organizations will need to survive and grow.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781523095384
Publisher: Berrett-Koehler Publishers
Publication date: 08/14/2018
Series: The Humble Leadership Series Series , #4
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 85,578
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Edgar H. Schein is professor emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management.
Peter A. Schein is the cofounder and COO of the Organizational Culture and Leadership Institute.

Read an Excerpt


A New Approach to Leadership

This book introduces a new approach to leadership based more on personal relationships than transactional role relationships.

The good news: employee engagement, empowerment, organizational agility, ambidexterity, innovation ... all of this can flourish in the rapidly changing world when the fundamental relationship between leaders and followers, helpers and clients, and providers and customers becomes more personalized and cooperative.

The bad news: continued deception, scandals, high turnover of disengaged talent, safety and quality problems in industry and health care, all the way to corruption and abuse of power at the highest levels of industry and politics, driven by financial expediency and the obsession with retaining power as primary success criteria ... all of this will continue to happen as long as leader-follower relationships remain impersonal, transactional, and based on the roles and rules that have evolved in the current culture of management that still predominates in our hierarchical bureaucratic organizations.

We therefore need a model of leadership that is more personal and cooperative, that changes relationships both inside organizations and between organization members and their customers, clients, and patients. This model is Humble Leadership.

What Is Leadership? The Leader–Follower Relationship

"Leadership" is wanting to do something new and better, and getting others to go along. This definition applies as much to senior executives developing new strategies, new purposes, and new values as it does to a group member down in the organization suggesting a new way of running a meeting or improving a process to drive better results. Both the word new and the word better remind us that leadership always refers to some task that can be improved and to some group whose values and culture will ultimately determine what is better.

What is new and what is better will always depend on context, the nature of the task, and the cultural values that are operating in the group or organization that is doing the work. What we later may label as "good or effective leadership" thus always begins with someone perceiving a new and better way to do something, an emergent leader. Our focus will be not on the individual and the desired characteristics of that emergent leader, but on the relationships that develop between that person and the potential followers who will have influenced what is finally considered to be new and better and who will implement the new way if they agree to try it. Those potential followers will always be some kind of workgroup or team, so our focus will also be on the relationships between them. They may be co-located or widely spread in a network, and their membership may change, but there will always be some kind of grouping involved, hence group dynamics and group processes will always be intimately involved with leadership.


Leader-follower relationships can usefully be differentiated along a continuum of "levels of relationship" that are generally accepted in society, that we have learned to use in our own relationships, and that are, therefore, familiar and comfortable. We introduce these levels now but will explain them in greater detail in Chapter 2. The relationship continuum includes these four levels:

* Level Minus 1: Total impersonal domination and coercion

* Level 1: Transactional role and rule-based supervision, service, and most forms of "professional" helping relationships

* Level 2: Personal cooperative, trusting relationships as in friendships and in effective teams

* Level 3: Emotionally intimate total mutual commitments

Some version of these levels is present and well understood in most societies, and we generally know the difference in our own relationships between coercively giving orders to someone over whom we have power (Level Minus 1) and the broad range of transactional relationships we have with strangers, service providers, and our bosses, direct reports, and peers with whom we maintain appropriate "professional distance" (Level 1).

These arm's-length relationships differ from how we relate to friends and to teammates in collaborative workgroups we have gotten to know as individual human beings (Level 2), and how we relate to our spouses, close friends, and confidants with whom we share our more intimate and private feelings (Level 3).

We already have the attitudes and skills necessary to decide at what level to relate to each other in our daily lives, but have we thought through sufficiently what is the appropriate level of relationship in our workgroups and in our hierarchical relationships? Have we considered what the leadership relationship needs to be as the tasks of organizations become more complex?

In order to explain what we mean by Humble Leadership, we need to consider what these levels mean in the organizational context of today and as we look ahead. Our argument is that Level Minus 1 domination and coercion is a priori morally inappropriate in an established democratic society and is, in any case, ineffective except where tasks are very simple and programmable. Level 1 transactional relationships built around role expectations, and rules of behavior appropriate to those roles, have evolved into what we can think of as the basic managerial culture that still dominates many of our organizations and institutions. It is based on the core US values of individual competitiveness, heroic self-determination, and a concept of work that is linear, machine-like, and based on technical rationality. Level 1, therefore, relies on rules, roles, and the maintenance of appropriate professional distance (Roy, 1970). This existing culture and the way the world is changing lead us to believe that we need a new model based on more personal Level 2, and sometimes even Level 3, relationships and group processes.

Why We Need Another Book about Leadership

There are several reasons why we need a new leadership model.


The tasks that need to be accomplished in today's world involve a dynamic mix of emerging technologies, collaboration between many kinds of expertise provided by team members, and ecosystem partners, who often come from different occupational and national cultures. The products and services that need to be provided are themselves getting more complex and are constantly shifting in the rapidly changing sociopolitical environment. Information technology and geographically dispersed social networks have created new ways of organizing and communicating, which makes it very hard to define the process of leadership (Heifetz, 1994; Johansen, 2017).

Organizations around the world are struggling with the increasing rate of change, the degree of global interconnectedness, multiculturalism, and the pace of technological advances. Climate change is accelerating. Product specialization is accelerating. Cultural diversification is accelerating. It is becoming obvious that keeping pace in this world will require teamwork and collaboration of all sorts based on the higher levels of trust and openness created by more personalized relationships. Teams will require other teams to share what works and what they know. Humble Leadership at all levels will be needed to link workgroups and teams. Self-centeredness, quid pro quo machinations, political one-upmanship — behaviors that come naturally to individual climbers in hierarchies — will be discredited if not punished as selfish wastes of time.

Organizations who can recast their self-image, design and redesign themselves to be adaptable living organisms, will increase their own success and survival rate (O'Reilly & Tushman, 2016). This book proposes that this redesign will not happen without more personalized leadership on top of, inside of, and around modern organizations. Humble Leadership will create and reflect the relationships that can respond to this accelerating rate of systemic change and will empower workgroups to build and maintain critical adaptive capacity to capitalize on accelerating change.

A new model is timely. As Frederic Laloux said in his analysis of the evolution of organizational forms, "something is in the air" (Laloux and Appert, 2016, p. 161). We are particularly struck by descriptions of new organization patterns in the US military, America's largest hierarchical organization, which suggest that the only way to fight some of today's wars is with a "team of teams" approach (McChrystal, 2015). Even, or especially, in the US military, the old model — organizations as machines led by heroes — is the past, not the future. It is hard to see how future organizations in most industries will survive if their business model is based primarily on the standardized output machine myth.

Leadership in this environment is categorically humbling because it is virtually impossible for an individual to accumulate enough knowledge to figure out all of the answers. Interdependence and constant change become a way of life in which humility in the face of this complexity has become a critical survival skill. For the past 50 years scholars have described the world as an "open socio-technical system" of constantly changing social and business contexts that must be accepted and approached with a "spirit of inquiry." As we move into the future, these conditions will increase exponentially, which will make Humble Leadership a primary means for dealing with these socio-technical challenges.


We have seen remarkable advances in engineering and in automation that are nearly eliminating technical defects in materials and manufacturing processes. But the design, production, and delivery of a growing number and variety of products has become primarily a socio-technical problem in which the quality and safety issues derive from faulty interactions between the various social micro systems of today's complex organizations.

All too often, problems aren't in the "nodes" (individuals), but in the interactions (relationships). With the exponential rise in contingencies and interactions, we see signs of a deep malaise in many organizations that can be characterized most clearly as the persistent failure of both downward and upward communication, reflecting indifference and mistrust up and down the hierarchy. Quality and safety problems don't result from technological failures but from socio-technical failures of communication (Gerstein, 2008).

To make matters worse, the management culture that has worked well so far has also created blind spots and diminished peripheral vision, which prevent many top executives from seeing and taking seriously this communication pathology. We must examine how the very culture that created success so far is built on some values that inhibit new and better ways of doing things.

Downward communication often fails because employees neither understand nor trust what executives declare as the strategy or culture they want to promulgate. Employees often feel that what is asked of them, for example "teamwork and collaboration," is in direct conflict with deeper elements of the culture, such as the competitive individualism for which they have been rewarded in climbing the corporate ladder. In our experience, too many top executives are remarkably unwilling or unable to see how their calls for virtuous new cultures of teamwork, of engagement, of becoming more agile and innovative, fall on deaf ears, because they are unwilling to change their own behavior and to build the new reward structures that would be needed to support the new cooperative values.

Upward communication typically fails because employees resist speaking up when they don't understand, don't agree, or see quality and safety issues in how the organization functions (Gerstein, 2008; Gerstein & Schein, 2011). All too often, failure to speak up has led to the deadly accidents that we have seen in the chemical, oil, construction, utility, and even aviation industries. In health care, we have seen hospital-induced infections and unwarranted deaths because employees either did not speak up or were not listened to if they did speak up and/or were told, "Don't worry, it will be taken care of by safety procedures," only to discover later that nothing was done. Complacency and not reporting (false negatives) are often the unseen causes of costly errors.

We have seen in recent scandals involving Volkswagen, Veterans Affairs, and Wells Fargo Bank how unrealistic production and/or cost control targets seemed to ignore employee appeals that they could not meet those targets and led to installing illegal software in cars, lying and falsifying records, or opening thousands of bogus bank accounts. Employee complaints were met in the case of VW with management saying, in effect, "Either you find a way to meet the emission targets with the present engine or we will find others who can!"

When employees occasionally become whistle-blowers, they may end up being acknowledged and may even effect some change, but all too often at great expense to their own careers (Gerstein, 2008; Schein, 2013b). The management principle "Don't bring me a problem unless you have the solution" is too widely quoted. Even more shocking is when executives tell us that a rise in accident rates and even some deaths is just "the price of doing business." We have heard hospital administrators say something equivalent: "Well, people do die in hospitals!"

Peer-to-peer communication is heavily advocated in all the talk of building teams and better collaboration but is almost always compromised by everyone's recognition that the career reward system is built on competition between individual performers. We talk teamwork, but it is the individual stars who get the big economic rewards and fame. We don't reward groups or hold groups accountable. When things go well, we identify the stars; when things go poorly, we look for someone to blame. We all too often hear of "blame cultures" in organizations. In one such large organization in the oil industry we heard engineers suggest, "When a project is finished, get reassigned immediately so that if anything goes wrong, you won't be around to be blamed!"

Beyond these communication problems we see further issues. We see US business culture continue to espouse the individual hero myth leader, and a machine model of hierarchical organization design that not only undermines its own goals of employee engagement, empowerment, organizational agility, and innovative capacity, but also limits its capacity to cope with a world that is becoming more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA). Though many managers may deny this, we think the hero model engenders a managerial culture that is implicitly built either on Level Minus 1 coercive relationships or on formal Level 1 hierarchical bureaucratic relationships between managers and employees, which de facto can become coercive and constricting. The leadership model that is generated by this kind of Level 1 managerial culture is dependent on visionary, charismatic leaders to overcome the apathy or resistance that builds up in such transactional, "professionally distant," role-based relationships.

Furthermore, we increasingly see that this form of transactional leading and managing has created not only the organizational communication pathology referred to above, but even what some would call organizational "evil" because employees are seen not as whole human beings, but as roles, commodities, and "resources" (Sennett, 2006; Adams & Balfour, 2009; Gerstein & Schein, 2011; Schein, 2014). In a role- and rule-based organization it is easy to ignore what the safety analysts call "practical drift" (Snook, 2000) or "normalization of deviance" (Vaughan, 1996). Such drift is related to executive myopia, if not tunnel vision, which can allow dysfunctional behaviors to develop throughout the layers of the hierarchy, which, in turn, spawn employee disengagement, lying, cheating, and, ultimately, safety and quality problems for citizens, customers, and patients.

A more extreme example that borders on "evil" was reported in a recent article in the New Yorker detailing how a large chicken-producing factory exploits undocumented immigrants, puts them into unsafe environments, and threatens to expose them to deportation if they complain about work conditions (Grabell, 2017). Suffice it to say that we see problems in the existing managerial culture that cannot be fixed by the individual hero models that this same culture advocates.

In defense of the existing culture, as long as leaders understood the task, they could continue to try to impose new and better methods such as Lean or Agile (Shook, 2008). However, as tasks become more socio-technically complex and interdependent, formal leaders often discover that the new and better way is only understood and implemented correctly if employees are actively involved in the design and implementation of those changes, which ultimately hinges on having Level 2 personal relationships in the change groups.


Excerpted from "Humble Leadership"
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Copyright © 2018 Edgar H. Schein and Peter A. Schein.
Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

1 A New Approach to Leadership 1

2 Culturally Defined Levels of Relationship 22

3 Humble Leadership in Governance: The Singapore Story 40

4 Transforming a Medical Center into a Level 2 Culture 49

5 Humble Leadership in the US Military 60

6 When Hierarchy and Unintended Consequences Stifle Humble Leadership 79

7 Humble Leadership and the Future 100

8 Humble Leadership Requires Reinforcing the "Soft Stuff" 117

9 Personizing: Building Level 2 Relationships 130

References 145

Acknowledgments 151

Index 155

About the Authors 161

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