EPC Book Review: March 2019


Humble Leadership: The Power of Relationships, Openness and Trust


By E H and P A Schein (2018)

It’s never a good start to be told by a reviewer on the back cover blurb that this is the only book on management you will ever need!  However, it overcomes that start and it does deserve your attention if you are interested in leadership, management and teams.  Edgar Schein is, of course, a familiar name and a giant in the field of organisational culture.  So the book comes with a pedigree and a weight of expectation.

The core premise is that organisations, businesses and the business environment are changing rapidly and radically.  This means that traditional approaches to organisational structure and leadership are becoming out-of-date. This especially applies to formal and hierarchical structures, of the sort the authors call “role and rule based”.  They say that such ways of organising and leading are becoming ill-suited to the increasingly faster pace of the modern workplace and the constant, creative agility that success depends on.  Heard something like that before?

The difference is the authors’ certainty that the days of what they call the “heroic” leader, who drives the organisation by sheer force and power of personality, intellect, energy and vision - are all but over.  What they advocate in its place is the “humble leadership” of the title.  This is leadership that establishes, and then works within, relationship networks based on trust, openness and shared commitment to common goals.  To quote… “We see leadership as a complex mosaic of relationships, not as a two-dimensional (top-down) status in a hierarchy, nor as a set of unusual gifts or talents of “high potential” individuals”. 

The future workplace, they say, will need empowered people and teams that can build and maintain a highly flexible and adaptive capability.  This apparently requires “humble leadership” because of complexity and the need for agility … “it is virtually impossible for an individual to accumulate enough knowledge to figure out all the answers”. 

So, this is (at root) a new and more far-reaching take on participative leadership – an idea that has been around for quite a while.  But it does take it to a new place.  It’s a compelling argument which is well made, although it can get a little polemic in places.  It’s also quite brief, at 144 pages of text.  It can be absorbed even more economically by skipping some of the case studies, which are slightly repetitive. 

The main reason for recommending it is that the approach seems especially relevant to  leadership and work in multi-agency emergency management teams which function (theoretically, at least) in a consensus-based “expert team” model. In that context, we know for sure that no single person or agency has all the answers, and the aim of the team is co-ordinate a creative response that delivers something greater than the sum of the parts. 

Reviewed By:


Mark Leigh,  BA MSc MA MSc PGCE​

Capability Lead, Emergency Planning College

Date of Review: 12th March 2019
Link to Purchase this Book: Buy from Amazon