How Interim Leaders Can Tap Into the Power of Humility


How Interim Leaders Can Tap Into the Power of Humility


Reflections from the August 19 Interim Executives Roundtable with Dr. Marilyn Gist


By Mike Mitchell, CAE


I have always been a fan of business thought leader Jim Collins because of something that is very personal to me. In his book Good to Great, Collins describes the most effective leaders as those who “blend extreme personal humility with intense professional will.” (Collins, 2001, p. 21) These leaders “channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company.” (Collins, 2001, p. 21).


This view of leadership still resonates with me because I have long believed it is possible to be a successful leader by being strong and humble at the same time.


That was in 2001.


Last week, I was reminded of this leadership approach when Marilyn Gist, PhD joined the Interim Executives Roundtable and offered her perspective on “The Interim as Humble Steward.”


A renowned teacher, author and consultant specializing in leadership development, Dr. Gist believes that the most important aspect of leadership is relationships. It is incumbent upon leaders to maintain the health of key relationships with their organization’s various stakeholder groups, and it is the quality of those relationships that will open up or shut down teamwork.


So if, as Dr. Gist believes, people are the organization, then it is important for leaders to treat those people with humility.


Dr. Gist defines humility as a tendency to feel and display a deep regard for others’ dignity, and doing it in a way that feels authentic and not just transactional. One way to show authentic humility is by regularly recognizing others’ contributions to build their sense of self-worth.


Humility is the essential foundation for healthy relationships, and yet according to Dr. Gist only one-third of leaders truly embrace and authentically demonstrate humility in leadership. Why is that?


Dr. Gist suggests that many leaders see humility as a sign of weakness which will undermine their ability to lead. In her soon-to-be-released book, The Extraordinary Power of Leader Humility! (Gist, 2020), Dr. Gist explains that humility is the sweet spot between Meekness and Arrogance (Ego).


In practice, I see that sweet spot as what Dr. Gist calls “generous inclusion,” a careful balance between ceding too much control to those you’re leading and asserting too much control over those you’re leading. Demonstrating an intentional desire to include the entire team in the work of an organization while holding themself accountable for the results can make a leader’s vision more compelling by ensuring that it serves all stakeholder groups.


While humility applies to all leaders, it has even greater implications for interim leaders who routinely walk into situations and organizational cultures that suffer from a lack of trust in leadership. In fact, the first task an interim may face is having to re-build trust among staff and other stakeholders that was diminished by a predecessor who was too meek or too arrogant.


The community of interim executives who participated in the Roundtable discussion identified a number of behaviors that demonstrate humility in interim leaders.

    • Be intentionally inclusive. Show that you are making an effort to hear from all stakeholders.
    • Don’t act like the expert. Your job is to lead the organization successfully through a transition, not be the sage advisor about the mission and the stakeholders it serves. Show that you are putting your faith in the people who know a lot more about the organization than you do.
    • Admit upfront that you are unfamiliar with the culture of the organization and its constituents (which is likely to be the case). Ask for help and show that you are willing to learn about that culture.
    • Make this a No Mandate Zone. Whenever practical, act like a collaborator and influencer to effect change. Don’t mandate change, as it gives people the impression that their input doesn’t matter.
    • Focus on building relationships among other stakeholders. You are here only for a short time, so make sure that the most important relationships are not with you but among the people who are still going to be there after you leave.


One of the critical interventions we teach in the Interim Executives Academy is that interim executives should adopt a facilitative leadership philosophy of Servant Leadership. Dr. Gist says that humility is more personal than Servant Leadership, describing humility as an essential attribute for successful Servant Leadership.


One of my broad takeaways from Dr. Gist’s leadership work is that humility is about supporting the dignity of all stakeholders. She further advised that for interim leaders, this includes preserving the dignity of the former leader.


Depending upon the circumstances surrounding the former leader’s departure, there are likely to be at least two camps that have formed in support and in opposition to that leader. Dr. Gist suggested that many leadership transitions have been caused by the CEO trading off one stakeholder relationship for another.


To avoid making the same mistake, interim leaders may elect to empathize with the feelings of both camps, but should resist the urge to take sides and join in the water cooler conversations. When the time comes to introduce the new permanent leader, you will deserve the same respect as your predecessor upon your own departure. These are some of the highlights, or mission moments, that our group experienced during our last “Interim Executives Roundtable: The Interim as Humble Leader.”


Our thanks to Dr. Gist and to everyone in our community who contributed to our continuing understanding of exceptional interim executive leadership. I have a signed copy of Jim Collins’ Good to Great. I hope to have a signed copy of Dr. Gist’s new book soon!


Be an intentional leader, not just a leader with good intentions.


Senior Strategist, Online & Virtual Services
Third Sector Company, Inc.



Collins, J. (2001). Good to great: why some companies make the leap and others don’t. New York, NY: HarperCollins.


Gist, M. (2020). The extraordinary power of leader humility! Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publisher


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