Opinion

The business book club: Why humility is a critical survival skill for OSH leaders

CEO of international safety culture consultancy RMS

Full disclosure: I have been a fan of Edgar Schein for decades. As the “godfather of organisational culture” he has not just made his mark, but carved the mould from which almost every other management author works. 

Now in his 90th year, Schein is still at the cutting edge of human psychology.

This is the fifth book in his “humble” series – co-authored with his son, Peter – and extends the belief Schein has preached tirelessly: that we all need to be more human – whether at work, in consulting others, when asking questions, or when seeking to support. It’s an essential companion for OSH practitioners.

Being a leader is a tough gig. As humans we make mistakes. Further, information technology and the corporate globalising quest have created new ways of working which, in turn, make it much harder to define the process of leadership.

The age of the heroic leader is over. The Scheins believe we all need a dose of humility. Humble Leadership proposes a relational view, where leadership is a process (rather than an act, role or title) of learning, sharing and directing new and better things to do in the dynamic environment that is today’s organisation.

Humble Leadership, the power of relationships, openness and trust, Edgar H Schein and Peter A ScheinThe world in which we live and work is an open, sociotechnical system of changing social and business demands that we have to accept, embrace and approach with a spirit of enquiry. Humility is not a string to the leader’s bow, but a critical survival skill. Leading today requires first-rate teamwork, collaboration and communication, but recent research suggests it’s tricky – trust and openness at work are on the decline. 

Being a leader is a tough gig

Colourful character and strong opinion may make headlines for Elon Musk and Richard Branson but humility is an underrated leadership quality – and one we all need to cultivate. The authors posit that we must strive to “personise” our relationships with those around us. Not personalise, this is a new word, meaning to be more human – building real connections by revealing something about ourselves, or asking something personal of others: with authenticity, appropriate vulnerability, and sincerity. 

It may seem trite to say that relationships can be designed and evolved, but the more work requires collaboration, open communication and trust in commitment, the more personisation is essential. Never more so than when it comes to matters of workplace safety. We must do away with the pseudo-tech speak of acronym and abbreviation, or rite and rule, and instead become more human.

The book is peppered with anecdotes from the Scheins’ personal experiences and packed with case studies that illustrate the impact of personising your leadership approach. In fewer than 150 pages it provides a gripping and provocative guide to adapting your leadership style to something much more human.  It’s time to put people at the heart of safety and health, with a significant measure of humble leadership.

CEO of international safety culture consultancy RMS 

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