· 3 min read · Features

Leadership and humility: a more humane approach to business


According to the Taoist philosopher, Lao Tzu, “a leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say, we did it ourselves”.

That's a powerful reminder of a very different vision of the task and responsibility of leadership for our perplexing times - one that combines humility and compassion.

The notion leadership is a human attribute that should have a sense of collective or transcendent purpose is a far cry from the dominant economistic narrative of leadership which is largely defined in terms of material benefit to individuals, to corporations and to shareholders, to the exclusion of other interest groups and broader societal needs.

This excessively economistic focus on the tasks and responsibilities of management was a significant factor in the economic crisis that has left us in the turmoil we are in today. This bred a damaging individualism, at odds with any sense of stewardship or of collective or transcendent purpose, and a preoccupation with a very narrowly-defined 'bottom line'.

Leadership has been associated with unleashing individual entrepreneurial energies in highly-driven workplaces where each competed with all for career advancement. Business is seen as a form of war, a war of all against all and the workplace the battlefield where compassion, empathy and idealism are the fallen.

Leading business schools across the world have long emphasized that their fundamental role and responsibility is to create outstanding leaders. Yet the degree to which MBAs played key roles in this crisis only underlines the over-emphasis on economics and finance in the MBA curriculum and the need to develop fresh and different ways of thinking about and practising leadership that embrace a broader sense of personal identity, individual and collective possibility and intercultural awareness.

However, there is an alternative narrative of leadership, management and business which challenges the economic narrative which introduces the concepts of self- questioning, self-fashioning, identity, aspiration and hope. Rather than a philosophy of individualism, I would argue that the essence of being human is interconnection and interdependence which can be realized through authentic intercultural dialogue.

At the heart of this new vision is the notion of balance and the ability to create harmony in relationship with the self and others. Leaders need to balance economic necessity with the challenge of professing their humanity in developing more humane and sustainable organizations. That balancing act makes leadership a challenging activity which is, by its very nature, intellectual, emotional and spiritual. Leadership, we know to our cost, also has a shadow side. And so leadership needs to be viewed as a moral, ethical activity, best framed in terms of psychological and organizational integrity.

This interconnection goes beyond the bounds of the local and familiar to the transpersonal and spiritual. Authentic interconnectivity embraces similarity whilst celebrating difference; thus intercultural exchange becomes a vehicle for creating new learning spaces characterized by a respect and appreciation for difference and what it can teach us about ourselves.

Above all, then, leadership is as much an art as it is a science, as much a communal as an individual act. It is about dealing with an inherently complex, sometimes chaotic, psychologically challenging and always fast-moving, world. Increasingly, a major task leaders must accomplish is to create some sense of order and meaning out of chaos, both for themselves and for those they lead without succumbing to the temptation of premature closure and rigid thinking as a defence against the anxiety of uncertainty.

The most inspirational leaders display a willingness to be fully alert to and alive in the present moment and an attitude of mindfulness which promotes a deep intuitive appreciation of the patterns of experience in themselves and others. They are self-aware, possessing the capacity for deep, systematic reflection as well as an openness to sensory experience and embodied learning.

Encouraging this type of leadership requires us to integrate management and education best practice, eastern and western philosophy, psychology, the arts and humanities, systems thinking, action and narrative inquiry, story-telling, life histories, scenario planning, management learning and personal development.

Our overarching goal should be to facilitate the creation of more humane, more inclusive narratives of self, business and society that acknowledge that the social responsibility of business is much more than just increasing its profits.

Ken Starkey is professor of management and organisational learning at Nottingham University Business School