Book Review: Humble Leadership

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In case you haven’t noticed, traditional forms of leadership and organization are increasingly ineffective. They’re increasingly under fire, too. Edgar and Peter Schein think there’s a reason for that. Here’s how they put it in Humble Leadership: The Power of Relationships, Openness, and Trust.

“The traditional 20th-century culture of management can be described as a transactional set of relationships among designated roles that unwittingly creates conditions of low openness and low trust and can therefore make truly effective leadership difficult.”

Humble Leadership is about how you can change that. It’s about how you can lead where you are in a way that makes a difference.

I purchased this book because I’d read many books by Edgar Schein over the years. They were all insightful and prodded my thinking. They made me a better leader. When I combined that experience with the purpose of the book, it seemed like it would be a winner.

The book got off to a slow start. The “examples” the authors used seemed abstract, almost made up. The first two chapters worried me. I thought this might be the first Edgar Schein book I’d read that was awful. I shouldn’t have worried.

Beginning with Chapter 3, the pace of the book picks up and it reads more easily. The examples are concrete and identifiable. I tell you this because you may be tempted to close the book in the first two chapters. Don’t do that.

You may also be tempted to skip the first two chapters since you know they’re the dull parts. Don’t do that either. The first two chapters give you basic concepts that will illuminate the examples in the rest of the book. There are two important concepts.


Many styles of leadership treat people as if they were interchangeable parts. Companies commonly try to shape people to fit the job or role. Most don’t try to discover what people are particularly good at and how they can make their best contribution.

Personization is the process of turning roles and jobs into people. People are messier than roles and jobs. They show up with emotions and interests. They get passionate about stuff that seems to have no bearing on what their job is.

I wondered about the need for a new word, but I got it after reading several examples. “Personization” may be a made-up, special word, but it’s easier than any alternative I could come up with. By the end of the book, I was not only comfortable with it, I used it.

Levels of Relationship

Here’s how the authors describe the four levels of relationship.

“Level -1: Total and personal domination and coercion.

Level 1: Transactional role and rule-based supervision, service, and most forms of “professional” helping relationships.

Level 2: Personal cooperative, trusting relationships as in friendships and in effective teams.

Level 3: Emotionally-intimate, total mutual commitments.”

We already use these (without the labels) in our personal life. The relationship that we have with our physicians and with people we see every day but don’t know well is much like level 1. Most leadership is transactional. Our friends are at level 2. The people we hold close, like family and our most intimate friends, are at level 3. The Scheins’ say because we use this framework in our everyday life, it’s easy to translate it to our working life. That was true for me as I worked through the book and tried to apply the framework in a business context.

There are two reasons I like this book.

Doable Transformation

Many of the books on new ways to lead, such as Humanocracy, are “boil the ocean” books. They call for a major, permanent overhaul of whole organizations. While that might be great, it’s not likely to happen. My life experience tells me that we’re talking about generational change. The most powerful force for change will not be some theory. It will be the retirement ceremony.

Humble Leadership Allows for Hierarchy

Most other “reformist” thinking on leadership in organizations says to rid of hierarchy. That won’t happen. Human beings are hard-wired to be sensitive to hierarchy. Humble leadership works in a hierarchy. You can practice humble leadership and not be seen as some wild-eyed reformer.

I’ve observed and studied effective leaders for decades. Most of the do what the Scheins suggest.

In A Nutshell

If you want to become the best leader you can be, you should read Humble Leadership. You’ll be introduced to a system that will seem familiar because you already use it in your personal life. The humble leadership idea doesn’t require wholesale transformation of entire organizations. It doesn’t ask you to defy human nature by eliminating hierarchy. You can do it all without assuming the role of wild-eyed reformer.

You can check out some of my highlights and notes from this book on GoodReads.


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