Dear Dr. Graham:

I just finished my annual review with my boss, and I am really angry. He told me that, in my current leadership role, I need to be more humble. I had no idea how to reply to him. As a female who has worked hard to be heard, I feel like I’m being silenced. For far too long, women have been told that they need to be quiet and sit back. Being “humble” is no way to be successful in today’s real world!

I don’t think he would give me this feedback if I was a man.

Suppressed Supervisor

Dear Suppressed,

You’re not the first female leader who has expressed this concern to me. It’s understandable that women resist being “hushed.” However, I think there is much that both women and men can learn about the role of humility in leadership. The first thing we need to do is define what humility is, and what it isn’t.

Humility – for both male and female leaders — is not about being silenced. The definition of humility is: the feeling or attitude that you have no special importance that makes you better than others; lack of pride. True humility is about not trying to be the Most Important Person in the room. 

Much research tells us that the most respected and effective leaders are those who are able to listen and learn from anyone and everyone. These leaders aren’t hushed, silenced or suppressed. They simply choose to carefully consider others, especially those who work with and for them. Here’s an article that discusses recent relevant research:

Because you disagree with your boss’ assessment, now is a great time to reach out to “trusted others,” people who know you well at work and who you can trust to tell you the truth.  Do they agree with your boss’ feedback? If they disagree with your boss’ assessment of you, there may be no need to adjust your leadership style. But if they agree with your boss, you may want to dig deeper to figure out which of your behaviors are being perceived as less than humble.  And you should know that humility is a key leadership competency, one that is associated with learning from mistakes, letting others shine, and listening authentically. True humility is not a euphemism for silence, and it certainly doesn’t require you to take a back seat. Operating from a place of humility maximizes your chances of being heard and respected!  

Whether your boss’ feedback is right or wrong, his assessment provides you with the chance to do some meaningful reflection.

If you are ready to Lead at a Higher Level, consider joining my Facebook group to interact with other like-minded leaders. If you know someone in a similar scenario as “Suppressed Supervisor” that could find my suggestions helpful, forward this email to your colleague (Thank you!). You may also submit questions for me to address in future newsletters here

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