Humility Doesn’t Mean Weakness: How It Can Make Leaders More Effective

Don’t be afraid to ask staff for help, explanations

Being a leader doesn’t mean you have to act like you are invincible and all-knowing. In fact, displaying humility can make you a better leader, says Margaret McKenzie, MD, an Ob/Gyn who became President of Cleveland Clinic South Pointe Hospital in 2017.

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“Leaders often have to make decisions about areas they may not be an expert in, but they may be hesitant to admit that or ask for help or advice,” Dr. McKenzie says.

When faced with such a dilemma, she recommends leaders ask themselves what is best for the organization they lead, followed by what is best for the people who work for them.

“If you have put together an outstanding team and have built a lot of trust with them, it’s very easy to admit that you might not have an answer to every question and to seek consensus from other team members who are experts in their areas,” she says. “Be willing to be vulnerable. Finding the right answer is more important than your ego.”

This can be particularly hard for physicians who are new to leadership, Dr. McKenzie says, because they have previously been known as experts in their area of specialization.

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“Having vast amounts of knowledge in a particular area, and being recognized in that area by your peers locally and nationally, makes us accustomed to walking in expertise,” she says. “When we move into positions of leadership, the experience of not knowing something can be very unfamiliar and uncomfortable, and it requires us to really reflect on how to be authentic in our interactions.”

When a leader succeeds in demonstrating humility, though, he or she can expect to see it spread. “Once you model this behavior, it’s amazing how you can coax other members of your team to get comfortable with it,” Dr. McKenzie says.

A competitive world

She acknowledges these traits don’t always come naturally to people, especially in the competitive healthcare arena. Becoming a physician today, especially one who works at an elite institution, requires years of work — to get into a good medical school, to get a top residency position, to get a prestigious fellowship and finally to land that top-tier job.

“Everybody’s trying to excel. Everybody’s trying to be the best. Everybody’s trying to go to that next level,” Dr. McKenzie says. “Leaders need to be very comfortable in their own skin and not be afraid to lose or give up what they have, all of which requires maturity and reflection.”

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However, the potential rewards are big, she says. People who see that their leaders are open to their ideas will do their best work because they feel valued. They won’t have to be asked for help — they will offer it freely.

Personal experience

Dr. McKenzie has first-hand experience with this phenomenon. When she first became president at South Pointe, she did not know much about the facility, despite having been an active leader on Cleveland Clinic’s main campus for many years.

“I did not have the institutional memory that the staff there had. I knew where we wanted to take the hospital but I couldn’t come in and just tell folks how things were going to be from here on,” she says.

Instead, she asked lots of questions. “I had to be vulnerable and say, ‘Hey, you know what? I don’t know this. Could you enlighten me?’ because then I could contextualize what I went there to accomplish,” she says. “It wasn’t an easy sell at first but as people saw that I really meant it, they responded very well.”