On this episode, Josh speaks with Marilyn Gist, the author of “The Extraordinary Power of Leader Humility”. They discuss humility in leadership, its benefits, and things to can do to have that humility.

Marilyn Gist, PhD is an expert on leader development. Her academic career spans the University of NorthCarolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Washington where she held the Boeing Endowed Professorship of Business Management, and Seattle University where she served as Associate Dean, Professor of management, and Executive Director of the Center for Leadership Formation. She earned her BA from Howard University and her MBA and PhD from the University of Maryland, College Park.
Connect with Marilyn Gist on Twitter @MarilynGistPhD and LinkedIn.

I today’s episode you will learn:

  • What it means to lead with humility
  • How the pandemic, social unrest, and climate disasters can improve under leaders who practice humility
  • Which world leaders and executives lead with humility (and which don’t)
  • Why humility increases employee engagement and retention


Narrator:             Welcome to Cracking the Cash Flow Code where you’ll learn what it takes to create enough cash to fill the four buckets of profit. You’ll learn what it takes to have enough cash for a great lifestyle, have enough cash for when emergency strikes, fully fund the growth program, and fund your retirement program. When you do this, you will have a sale‑ready company that will allow you to keep or sell your business. This allows you to do what you want with your business, when you want, in the way you want.

In Cracking the Cash Flow Code, we focus on the four areas of business that let you take your successful business and make it economically and personally sustainable. Your host, Josh Patrick, is going to help us through finding great thought leaders as well as providing insights he’s learned through his 40 years of owning, running, planning, and thinking about what it takes to make a successful business sustainable and allow you to be free of cash flow worries.

Josh:                      Hey, how are you today? This is Josh Patrick. You’re at Cracking the Cash Flow Code. Today, my guest is Marilyn Gist. Marilyn is the author of The Extraordinary Power of Leader Humility. That’s the topic of the podcast for today. Now, you might be asking yourself, why would I want to be concerned about humility in my business? I’m going to tell you it’s a big deal. Marilyn’s going to help us to figure out why it’s a big deal. So instead of me wandering on about why I think it is, we’ll bring her on the show.

Hey, Marilyn, how are you today?

Marilyn:               Great. Josh. Thank you so much for having me on the show. I think it’s wonderful. I love it.

Josh:                      Oh, it’s a pleasure to have you on. I’m looking forward to this conversation because it’s one of my favorite topics. It’s one that almost never gets talked about in the business sense. Why should an owner of a business specifically a blue collar business be concerned about humility in leadership?

Marilyn:               The simple answer to that is that every person walking has a sense of dignity, a sense of self worth. It’s comprised by a lot of things in their life experience, a lot of things about them personally. We all have a need the sense of self worth. I define humility— it’s not meekness. It’s not weakness.

It’s simply a tendency to feel and display deep regard for other people’s dignity. Regardless of whether your business is small or large, when you’re a leader, if you work in ways that support other sets of self worth, you’re going to get much better engagement, enthusiasm, better energy and effort out of them. It’s just going to help lift up your business.

Josh:                      So if you are to advise a business owner on how to exhibit more humility, what would you tell them?

Marilyn:               Well, they’re really three questions people have a business owner, a leader of any type. They’re things they think about and it’s, who are you? Meaning who are you as a human being not what your name is? Where are we going? Do you see me? Owners or leaders of any kind answer that with their behaviors and they answer it in terms of behaviors that really are, who I am as a person.

Do I have an excessive ego? Am I honest? Can I be trusted? Do I have integrity, for example? When they think about the direction that they give people, the kind of vision and strategies they set whether those are compelling and interesting, or whether they’re ethical, people care about that. Then in terms of that question of, how I treat you which affects whether you feel seen or not, do I include you when we’re making important decisions that are going to affect you and your workplace, your work tasks, that type of thing?

Do I care about you in terms of your long term interests? Is this just a transaction where you’re just here to do a job, don’t ask questions come in, shut up and get it done? There’s a set of things that leaders or business owners do that create this environment that either supports other people’s dignity or harms it.

Josh:                      It sounds like humility is a pretty important part of trust. Does that make any sense?

Marilyn:               Yes, it does. It contributes a lot to whether people feel they could trust the boss. If they don’t feel that their dignity is— let’s say for example, someone who shouts when I do something wrong or someone who publicly criticized as an embarrassing, as an employee when they make a mistake, what happens is that people become very cautious.

They don’t trust the leader to treat them in a more humane way. So if they know of something that they think might bring on some criticism, they’ll tend to hold back. They’ll hide it. They may withhold information that could keep us from running into real problems that humility has a lot to do with building trust in an organization.

Josh:                      Yeah, it was like a poster child for not how to build trust when I was in my early business years.

Marilyn:               So was I.

Josh:                      It kind of makes me believe, by the way, there’s a thing called the trust formula which you sort of just hit on. It was a book called The Trusted Advisor. The Trust Formula is intimacy plus confidence plus reliability divided by self interest is how much you’re going to trust somebody. 

When trust goes out of whack, I always look at that formula because it’s one of those four things that went out, that caused the problem for you. I think that’s really true. Where do mistakes fit in with humility?

Marilyn:               You mean like an employee makes a mistake?

Josh:                      Yeah, like an employee makes a mistake, or the owner makes a mistake.

Marilyn:               I think with humility, you can still have very, and you should have very high standards, very clear goals that you set with people. You want to have that accountability built in. We’re not talking about excusing weakness, but there’s a difference between a mistake because we all make mistakes, including the owner.

How you treat someone when they make a mistake? First of all, do you create a little attitude so that we know nobody’s perfect, and okay, you slipped up once, let me redirect and correct on how I want this done as opposed to here’s a person who’s really a weak employee who’s making mistakes a lot. I think that’s a performance management problem you need to deal with.

Ultimately may need to decide that person isn’t a good fit for your organization and would be better off in a different kind of work somewhere else. Both of those can be handled privately and in a humane way. You don’t need to step at somebody’s dignity in order to correct their behavior and help them understand. It’s about really bringing it back to the job, to the expectations to what I’m asking you to do. The level we’re setting on where that performance needs to be.

That’s actually a way of enhancing someone’s dignity by making it very clear what they need to do in order to succeed. That’s kind of how I see the mistake issue. You still want to correct that behavior, but you do it in a way that focuses on the job and not the person and certainly don’t communicate in a way that’s embarrassing to them or damaging insulting to them.

Josh:                      I always like to ask people when they make a mistake, what did you learn?

Marilyn:               Right, right.

Josh:                      A mistake is fine to make as long as it’s good learning it. You just don’t want to waste a mistake by not learning something which means you need to hold people’s feet to the fire. What I often find is I’ll say, “Okay, what did you learn?” Some will say, “I don’t know.”

Well, most managers at that point stop the conversation just walk away in frustration. I have actually two follow up questions I encourage people to think about, if they say, I don’t know, my first question would be, well, if you did know, what would it be? That will get in the answer about 50% of the time, about 50% of the time, they’ll still say, “I don’t know.”

Then my next one is, “Well, here’s what I want you to do. I want you to make up how you would fix this, if you were going to.” Then they get to tell you a story and the truth is that stories generally what they should do. When someone tells me, they’ll tell me their story, I’ll say, “That’s great. Go do it. By the way, while you’re doing it document it.”

Marilyn:               Right, yeah very good suggestions. Sometimes if you have the time or the problem is more complex, you may want to say, “Well, let’s look at this together. Let’s look at how it started. How did we get to where we were in the middle? Does that tell you anything? How did we get to the end? Do you like the way it ended?” No. Okay, well, we need to understand how we got there. Sometimes with more complex problems or when the employee is really reaching above their skill level, it helps if the leader can kind of walk with them a little bit in that diagnosis.

Josh:                      If they’re above their skill level, that’s really well, one of my favorite management thinkers was a guy named W. Edwards Deming, who was known as the Father of the Total Quality Management Movement. He had a thing called 14 points and two of the 14 points were— don’t blame the employee when the mistake happens, blame the manager, or fix the system.

Those are the two [inaudible 00:10:05] he had for that. If you’re running a company where people know that if they make a mistake, they’re going to be held responsible, but they’re not going to be blamed. So if you’re looking at learning from what the mistake is in fixing your system which is about 90% of the time, people always talk about people problems. In my experience, people problems are usually system problems.

Marilyn:               Most of the time they are.

Josh:                      If I fix a system then the person will be fine. Now, I do occasionally have people problems and those have to either be fixed or left. If I have a people problem, it’s probably because I did a bad job of hiring for values matches.

Marilyn:               Typically. Yes.

Josh:                      Where do values fit into the world of humility?

Marilyn:               Good question. I think that values, we differ in the things that we value, but for a business owner, you have some flexibility to design what kind of company, what kind of culture you have. If you’re interested in high performance, if you’re interested in a healthy culture then you have to have values that support humanity is what I would call it. You mentioned trust. You want people who are willing to come forward when they make a mistake.

One of the best things I think leaders can do is be the type of leader that when I’m working for you, if I make a mistake, I feel I can go to you and I could [inaudible 00:11:32] say, “Look, I really goofed on this. Here’s what I’m trying to do to fix it.” You’re going to be a lot smarter about anticipating problems that could grow from that if the person comes to you and lets you know what’s going on. I think values have to be around performance, but they also have to be around people. Those things are not mutually exclusive. The stronger the values you have around people, the better you’re going to deal with the performance.

Josh:                      I would say your values need to start with people or what your values are is a business owner, put a clarifying statement around so people know what you’re talking about and then use them as tools when you run your company.

Marilyn:               Yes, yes.

Josh:                      If you do, you start becoming values led company which puts you into a whole different category than almost all your competition because most of your competition never thinks about values or humility or formula, more human place to work.

Marilyn:               One of the things I did with the book was to interview a number of CEOs. I picked big brand companies because almost everybody would recognize most of the companies to that book. I selected leaders who have great performance. Their organizations have great performance, but they are also humble leaders. Many of those I learned about from listening to employees talk about these leaders over time.

The principles apply to many smaller organizations, too. To a point, these leaders start with the notion of people first and doing the right thing. They have in many cases built amazing organizations. One of the leaders I interviewed was James Senegal cofounder of Costco.

Josh:                      One of my heroes by the way.

Marilyn:               He’s one of my heroes, too. I think Senegal is also that although it’s hard to get Senegal to talk about himself, but people will talk about his humility. Now, he was a very hard driving businessman. One of the fascinating things is they built Costco with no paid advertising. They turned it into this global multinational company warehouses everywhere.

275,000 employees based on the quality of humility among other things and setting a code of values in that company that encouraged people to do the right thing, obey the law, do the right thing, take care of the customer. I think the kinds of values that leaders set have been shown to make a real difference. One of the most important things a small business person can do is really think about what kind of company culture do I want to create? How do I view people? Sometimes we say, well, people are our greatest asset. In a lot of companies, people are your business. Without them, you really don’t have a business.

Josh:                      I wouldn’t say with a lot of company. I would say with all companies.

Marilyn:               Probably you’re right.

Josh:                      If you have an employee and that employee— this is just my opinion, you need to treat your employees as if they were your best customers. In fact, I would treat my employees better than my best customer because the way I treat them is the way they’re going to treat my customers.

Marilyn:               Exactly, exactly. They will flow through the very attitude they pick up from you.

Josh:                      Yeah, Costco is absolutely one of my favorite businesses in the world. It’s the only retail store I actually enjoy going into.

Marilyn:               It is a fun place, a little bit of a treasure hunt.

Josh:                      Well, that’s why I like it. I like treasure hunt— another company with another major CEO who has shown huge amount of humility almost actual opposite of his predecessors Tim Cook at Apple.

Marilyn:               Yes, very much so. It’s interesting, you mentioned Apple because people have sometimes said to me, “Well, you look at these CEOs who were kind of these founding CEOs who are not known for humility?” Certainly, Steve Jobs was not to the point that he was asked to leave Apple at one point later came back, maybe when he learned a little more humility.

We have some other companies that I won’t name them since you’re the one that named Apple. I’ll leave it at that. I’ll say, when you have maybe the bright, shiny new thing especially in the world of high tech, we’ve seen CEOs who do not have humility, who seemed to be able to come on the scene and still build a highly successful company. I would suggest that’s because a lot of people are attracted to this bright, shiny new thing.

They’re willing to put up with a lot of stuff in order to be part of that. There’s probably some set of employees are hoping that their stock options are going to pay off for them at some point. As a company matures, or if the thing you’re starting isn’t going to be this sizzling new technology, I think you have to go with this in a different way. Because people can go down the street and go to another retail company, another service firm of some type, it just doesn’t hold the same appeal.

I think with Apple, Steve Jobs was a genius credited with really transforming six industries and certainly brought to our lives things almost all of us use, but was not known for being a humble leader and recognize that as he matured in his own life. Tim Cook, I think has reenergized the company and taken it to a whole new level in large part because once they have matured. He brought that humanity and humility to the business to Apple that had not been there before.

Josh:                      We have a few minutes left. I want to do a little pivot here and talk about another word which is the word vulnerability. In my opinion, vulnerability and humility kind of go together pretty closely. Once you start realizing humility is not going to kill you then you can start looking at the vulnerability and being vulnerable in my experience has made me a better leader and not a weaker leader. Do you have a comment about that?

Marilyn:               Yes, I would agree with you. Defining humility as feeling and displaying deep regard for others dignity which is how I look at it. In order to show regard for your dignity, I have to be willing to admit my own mistakes. For example, which means I have to be vulnerable around you. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to employee and say, “I goofed, I screwed up, I’m sorry, I should be willing to apologize. I should be willing to own the problems created in the organization even if I didn’t create them personally because as the leader, this is my shop. If I’m going to take care of employees, I’ve set the direction. I’ve overseen the work. If it doesn’t work, I need to just say I’m responsible for that.”

Now, I might need to have a sidebar conversation privately with someone that I think didn’t deliver what they should have, but I need the vulnerability to own my mistakes, to apologize to others. Often when we hear the term vulnerability, it extends to some pieces that may not tie directly to humility, things like self disclosure, opening up about maybe more personal concerns or problems.

I do think it’s good to do that. I think the more people can connect with our humaneness within reason it is a healthy thing for relationships and for the organization. I think there’s some ways in which vulnerability is a bit different than humility, but some ways in which they connect strongly.

Josh:                      I find that when I’m vulnerable, I get support. When I act like I know everything in the world and I’m not vulnerable not only don’t get support, I got arrows thrown at me.

Marilyn:               Yes, and so you touching on another aspect of vulnerability. I didn’t mention that ties to humility. I think it’s being able to say I don’t know everything. I don’t know the answer to this problem we’re having. Can you help? I’m not sure what the best way is to do this, do you have ideas? Often the people who are closest to the customer closest to the action, actually have amazing ideas if they feel the leader is open to hearing it.

Josh:                      I had these things I called the pillars in my food service company. One of my pillars was you’re the expert at your job so act like it.

Marilyn:               I like it.

Josh:                      Which meant two things, one is a) the person doing the job had to own the job and b) the manager for that person had to not be the know it all, but had to be the helper and ask about what would be the best way to do that for the person doing the job because they knew about the job not the manager.

As you build bigger organizations, I mean, I was always three steps away from everybody who knew what was going on. So if I was going to really find out before I go in and start making lots of noise about things going wrong, I need to do a little discovery and sit and listen.

Marilyn:               Well. One of the other leaders I interviewed was Sally Jewell who was CEO of REI, at one point before she became Secretary of Department of the Interior.

Josh:                      By the way, another one of my favorite companies.

Marilyn:               You’re an outdoor guy talent.

Josh:                      Yeah. Well, in Vermont.

Marilyn:               Great, tree state. One of the things she said is when she would go into the company. She would make a beeline for the storeroom and for the bike shop, and so forth. She said, “Part of the reason I did that is it’s nice to get to know all of your employees and they feel good that the CEO takes time to stop by now.”

Then she said, “The other reason is that when you’re high up in an organization, people curate what it is they’re willing to share with you.” They tell you what they think you want to know. The farther people sit from the throne of power, the more direct they’re going to be the more they’ll let you know what’s really happening.

She had the humility, if he will, to really want to hear what people at the front line, were thinking what they were saying, what their problems were and made a real effort to make that beeline to the store room and to the bike shop as opposed to just sitting in the executive suite.

Josh:                      Well, you can tell that if you walk into any REI store, the people working in the store are truly interested in helping you solve whatever problem is, you’ve walked in with.

Marilyn:               They very much are.

Josh:                      Marilyn, unfortunately, we are out of time. We could probably have this conversation as you go through all the people you said I can say that’s another one of my favorite stores, but their businesses, but unfortunately, we’re out. So I’m assuming you would like people to buy your book and where would they find it?

Marilyn:               They can find it wherever books are sold. It’s at all major online retailers. Also, I have a page on my website, https://www.marilyngist.com/ that has five buttons for Amazon and Barnes and Noble and Indie books and quite a few of them.  I would welcome your eyeing it and reading it.

Josh:                      I just might do that. I have two things I would like you to do. First as a favor for me, I’ve been doing this podcast for about six years now. One of the most important things that can happen for a podcast host is to have people who listen to the show, go to wherever they listen and give an honest rating and review.

The second thing is that I’m in kind of focus for the last 20 years or so after you saw my first major business. What it takes to have a company be sale ready. Now, let’s talk about sell ready for a second. Sale ready does not mean you’re going to sell your company. It just means you have your company in shape so others would want to own it. There are eight things you need to do to become a sell ready company.

I have written a free eBook on this and you can get it free. You go to https://sustainablebusiness.co/saleready. That’s https://sustainablebusiness.co/saleready. Push the big orange button and you’ll get a free copy of our eBook. This is Josh Patrick. We’re with Marilyn Gist. You’re at Cracking the Cash Flow Code. Thanks a lot for stopping by. I hope to see you back here really soon.

Narrator:             You’ve been listening to Cracking the Cash Flow Code where we ask the question, “What would it take for your business to still be around 100 years from now?”

If you’ve liked what you’ve heard and want more information, please contact Josh Patrick at 802-846-1264 extension 102, or visit us on our website at www.sustainablebusiness.co, or you can send Josh an email at jpatrick@stage2solution.com.

Thanks for listening and we hope to see you at Cracking the Cash Flow Code in the near future.

Topics: employee retention, leadership, sustainable business podcast, Sustainable Business, employee engagement, leader humility, marilyn gist, lead with humility

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