The power of humble leadership: Why Twitter Canada managing director Paul Burns says leading with humility and humanity drives world-changing organizations
Paul Burns doesn’t buy into the ego-driven leadership mentality that has been prevalent for a long time. At least, not anymore.
The Managing Director of Twitter Canada, Burns is in the business of setting other people up for success. He advocates a humble approach to leadership, motivated by service to others, to instill the workplace with humanity and to power high-performance teams.
But this wasn’t always the case.
“Early in my career I was motivated by self-promotion,” Burns says. “I had to go through a bunch of difficult moments to get to a place where I put myself aside completely. You must choose to do that as a leader. You have to choose to ignore any sort of self-promotion or self-interest and recognize that your job as a leader is really in service to your people.”
While Burns acknowledges the need for confidence in leadership, he cautions against confusing it with arrogance.
“Arrogance is about manipulation in many ways, whereas leadership is about inspiration,” he says. “Humble leadership is a servant and service mentality – what benefits others, while arrogant leadership is about me – what benefits me. You can have someone who is confident but humble, which is a beautiful stylistic trait.”
For Burns, setting aside your own interests and being “ruthlessly devoted to the success of others” is the kind of leadership that inspires greatness.
“When people see that the reason you exist is to make them better and to make them successful, and you are committed to discovering and unlocking the best in them, they will go to the ends of the earth for you.”
Burns shares five strategies that he feels are important for leading with humility:
- Play the long game
Keeping your eye on the bigger picture helps maintain a service-oriented perspective. Think through the ramifications of your actions and realize the decisions you make today in the service of others will ultimately result in positive outcomes down the road.
“Over time you can build this ability to have a longer view of the deeper implications of a business cycle,” Burns says. “It’s a marathon not a sprint. We are in this game of life to make the planet better, to give people who are less fortunate than us a better life.”
- Get personal
Foster healthy relationships with your team members and become intimately acquainted with their drives and motivations. Stop talking and start listening. Drill down to the things that really matter. It can be as simple as grabbing a coffee, Burns says. “When you know about the insides of their life and what they’re going through, you end up leading from a position of trust and compassion. It allows you to be a better communicator with your people. It also allows you to frame challenges and opportunities differently based on how they may respond to it, and that only comes from knowing who they are.”
While he acknowledges saying simply getting to know your people might sound basic, it’s what really empowers leaders to “unlock the real stuff, the real potential” in others.
“If you listen long enough, people will tell you everything about themselves,” Burns says. “It’s a beautiful tool as a leader just to listen to people, including your customers and clients. It’s good to understand what people are thinking.”
- Mine for gold
Always approach your interactions with a “posture of potential,” Burns says. Instead of focusing on the inadequacies of those you lead, be a “gold digger” and intentionally look for their strengths.
“Go in with an attitude of, ‘there is the most unbelievable greatness and potential inside this person’ just waiting to break free,” he says. “Taking this approach radically changes how you engage with people.”
- Tend to your garden
Once you’ve discovered the seed of possibility in others, it’s your job as a leader to nurture it and help it grow, Encourage your people to see all of the possibilities imaginable and think bigger about what they’re truly capable of – even if it scares them.
“It’s like a plant,” he says. “You put a plant in a pot, and it’s going to grow based on the size of that pot. If you give it a bigger pot, you’ll see it flourish and grow and develop in a better way. All I’m doing as a leader is giving people a bigger pot to grow in.”
- Lead with love
When people can feel that you sincerely care for them through your words and actions, it inspires a level of devotion and performance unmatched by other, self-serving strategies. In the end, Burns says, it’s love that truly powers high-performance organizations.
“It’s about actually caring and being solely focused on falling in love with your people. I recognize that sounds romantic, but it’s really just loving who they are and loving their potential.”
He concludes, “Love, in its purest sense, is really about caring for other people; it’s not about yourself. If we could be a business fueled by love – love of our jobs, love of our colleagues, love of others – wonderful things start to come from that. Because love is not about ourselves; it’s not about our own individual pursuits. It’s about the benefit of others. Imagine what we could accomplish if we rallied around that cause.”
A powerful question indeed.
Written by Craig Dowden.
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