Building Successful Teams: The Importance of Humility in Leadership


You have a great idea. You founded a company. Congratulations! You’re now a CEO. You have a great team and now it’s time to perform…Unfortunately, that could make everything that’s come before seem easy. I know that sounds crazy, but building a strong, competent and productive team is one of the most important things you will do to set your fledgling company on the path to success, but it’s also one of the hardest. Fortunately, many of the founders who came before you have struggled through this, and few have passed on what Moz founder, Rand Fishkin , calls “cheat codes” to help you through this phase. Even if you’re not a startup CEO, if you manage people these “cheat codes” are ideas, tips and hacks will help you leverage the strengths of your team and help you elevate the quality of your team’s contributions. Kim Scott, a former team leader and executive at Google and Apple shares many fantastic strategies in her book, Radical Candor. One of the keys to being a great boss and building a highly functional team is humility. According Scott, humility is “absolutely essential when delivering both praise and criticism.” Leaders who are humble invite and encourage candid dialogue from their employees. This shows that they are invested in their employees, interested in their ideas and committed to finding the best ideas for the company. These leaders recognize that they can learn from and alongside their team members through robust debate. Steve Jobs likened this process to placing rocks in a tumbler: you put in ordinary rocks with a little grit add a little time, energy and noise and like the polished stone, your ideas are more refined and beautiful. A great team leader understands that her job is to create a safe environment for debate, and also manage the debate to ensure that it is robust and productive. Some hints for managing these debates include:

  • Keep the focus on ideas, not egos. The goal is to find the best idea, not to “win.” Encourage your team to keep an open mind and be willing to accept new information and ideas.
  • Create an obligation to dissent. If your team is in complete agreement when a new idea or process is laid out, assign a team member to play the Devil’s Advocate, and try to present the best ideas they can come up with on the opposite side.
  • Pause for Emotion/exhaustion. Read the situation. Sometimes debates become too emotionally charged or your team is too tired to engage in a productive debate. When this happens, take a break and reconvene at a later date.
  • Use humor and have fun! Set the tone for the conversation with a humorous anecdote or an explanation of why you’re excited to work with your team on this initiative.
  • Be clear when the debate will end. Some topics can be decided in a single meeting. Others may need more time for participation and deliberation. In those cases, you may want to have a “decide by” date so that all participants know what the deadline is to submit ideas and share feedback.
  • Pull the facts into the decision, but keep ego out. Help guide the team to make the best decision based on the facts. In most cases you will not be (and should not be) the decision maker. The decision makers should be the people with the best information. As a leader, your job is to make sure those people have that information.

Your team can be your biggest asset, but only if you exercise humility as a leader. Invite them to apply their skills, their intelligence, their commitment to the organization and its goals by fully integrating them into your decision making processes.


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