On Leadership and Humility

The value of a good leader should never be underestimated. Individuals with the ability to galvanize and inspire others have always played a defining role in the fate of nations, sociopolitical causes, and every other human enterprise (conversely, immoral leaders have instigated horrific and destructive actions).

 
A leader needn’t be a head of state or hold some other prestigious position to make a difference. Leadership emerges on every level and in any circumstance. Every individual is a leader in some aspect or area of their lives. Not only may outsiders overlook this, but so could the leader themselves.
 
What constitutes good leadership qualities is debatable and often subjective. Most people agree that charisma, courage, integrity, hard work, and creativity are universal traits among all good leaders. Because of the obviously social nature of what they do, the ability to manage, organize, and mobilize many other people is also vital, though the means of doing so vary. In fact, I think that the characteristics of a good leader vary from person to person and depend on what specific group or cause is being lead (and what obstacle or antagonist is faced). 
 
But what about humbleness? I think one of the overlooked challenges of being a leader is overcoming the human ego – being in charge of something, especially if it involves many people following you, can do a lot to one’s sense of pride and self-confidence. It’s easy for leaders to get carried away with their role, not only becoming arrogant, shortsighted, and bossy, but also dishonest.
 
The self-entitlement that inevitable emerges from haughty leaders generally causes lapses in judgment and morality – the reason so many leaders seem prone to hypocrisy and corruptibility, aside from the fact that it’s easier to notice given their publicity, is that they begin to think their leadership role warrants special perks and privileges. An inability to curb ones egotism can lead many once-promising leaders down a dark and destructive path, and jeopardizes whatever it was they were leading (leaders set the example after all).
 
So humility is, arguably, one of the most crucial elements to good leadership. I’m focusing specifically on this trait largely in response to arecent blurb on the subject in the Atlantic Weekly.  It’s pretty brief, so I’ll post the entirety of the article here:
 
Bosses who are more open and empathetic are better positioned to build their businesses, new research from the University of Buffalo says.
PROBLEM: Compared to egotistic bosses who may be more analytical, humble leaders are largely considered more relatable and likable. But are they also more effective?
 
METHODOLOGY: Researchers led by University at Buffalo School of Management’s Bradley Owens asked 16 CEOs, 20 mid-level leaders, and 19 front-line leaders from assorted organizations (military, manufacturing, health care, financial services, retailing, and religious) to describe in detail how humble leaders behave in the workplace.
 
RESULTS: All of the respondents agreed that humble bosses lead by example, admit their mistakes, and recognize their followers’ strengths; and that these three behaviors are powerful predictors of company growth. Experienced white male leaders reportedly reap the most benefits from such selfless acts, most likely because their employees notice these unexpected deeds more.
 
CONCLUSION: Leaders who are open with their feelings and keen to learn and grow are better liked and perceived as more effective.
 
CAVEAT: To validate the findings of this admittedly small study, the authors conducted follow-up research that’s slated to appear in the journal Organization Science. Using data from more than 700 employees and 218 managers, they found that leader humility is associated with more learning-oriented teams, more engaged employees, and lower voluntary employee turnover.
 
SOURCE: The full study, “Modeling How to Grow: An Introductive Examination of Humble Leader Behaviors, Contingencies, and Outcomes,” is published in the Academy of Management Journal.
The results portion was most interesting to me. Admitting one’s mistakes and weaknesses is difficult enough for anyone, period. But being in a position of prominence or extra scrutiny makes it even harder. People feel the pressure to be right all the time, or to never falter in any capacity.
 
Ironically, this obsession with perfection often leads to a leader’s undoing: they’ll be blind to fatal errors, overburdened with trying to perform flawlessly, and get caught dishonestly covering up their errors. All of these erode both their performance and the ability of others to follow them.
 
So being humble helps keep you in check. A modest person is not only more willing to admit mistakes to others – which can be inspiring – but more importantly, they can confront their flaws themselves and address them accordingly. If you’re too self-confident, you’ll probably never be able to better yourself. Self-improvement and personal progress begin with admitting there’s something to improve or progress from in the first place.
 
The effect of such openness and honesty on others is also crucial. Some people will inevitably be cruel towards an apparently flawed leader, or doubt their leadership strengths (then again, retaining the support and loyalty of such individuals probably shouldn’t matter at that point). By my experience, most people will be touched that someone in a privileged position would be so willing to admit their own failures and act on them.
 
Not only is this a sign of confidence, integrity, and honesty – all good enough qualities as it is – but it brings a leader back down to Earth. It humanizes individuals who are otherwise too aloof and/or lionized to be seen as one of “common folk.” You’re more likely to follow someone you connect with in this way then someone you don’t, whether it’s in the public or private sector.
 
Thus enters empathy. If you empathize with others, you understand their wants and needs. You’ll know how to address their demands and keep them happy and productive. Because you understand their point of view, you’ll also be able to work with them more effectively, mobilizing them accordingly. A leader has to know people to know how to lead people. While it seems like common sense, tell that to the out-of-touch politicians and corporate executives who are failing this country.
 
Finally, I can’t stress the importance of recognizing another person’s strength. Self-centeredness is not only detrimental (as illustrated above), but it’s illogical: a leader is nothing without the people he or she leads. You need to be able to recognize the assets, qualities, and strengths of those who support you. This has the practical benefit of helping you best apply the skills of any given member of your team; like empathy, it also leads to great morale and appreciation. Positive reinforcement leads to positive outcomes. People work better when they feel good, feel recognized, and feel wanted.
 
All these aforementioned qualities overlap and stem from one another, and they all begin with humility. It’s easy to dismiss or even deride the humble person. Our society rewards cutthroat competition and superiority. We cheer the leaders, namely in politics, who eschew civility and restraint for belligerence and arrogance. Modesty is a sign of weakness, poor confidence, and spinelessness. It can be if it’s excessive to point of self-doubt, but this isn’t always the case.
 
As a leader, I’m a pretty big softy, so that’s a big part of my bias for this trait. But I think there’s too much self-entitlement and self-centeredness in our society. Too many people think that being demanding, aggressive, or harsh are the real ways to succeed, and the best attitudes to follow. They may have a point, given the direction our society is going, and the constant pressure for people to be “tough.” The system seems to make humility a daunting and risky endeavor.
 
But we mustn’t mistake humility with meekness, even if the two are often used interchangeably. A person can still be strong, confident, and forceful without all the flair and counter-productive bellicosity. Restraint and decency reflect wisdom and honor, not weakness. Arguably, it takes more strength to remain down-to-Earth while in a position of authority and power. A leader has more to struggle with the obstacles of their cause – there is an internal and psychological dimension as well.
 
One of the hardest parts about being a leader is probably remaining true to yourself. It’s easy to get swept up in all the prestige and influence, or get bogged down by the pressure and heightened scrutiny. One must find the delicate balance between confidence and humility, forcefulness and restraint. Moving too far in one direction or the other leads to weakness or arrogance, neither of which is favorable, obvious.
 
Perhaps the greatest mark of leadership is being able to lead yourself to such a demanding position in the first place – and keep yourself honest and intact the whole way through. 
 
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5 comments on “On Leadership and Humility

    • Indeed, and some argue that they’re still just as qualified as leaders if they get the job done. The question comes down to whether they should still be seen as good leaders for their results or their actual style?

  1. Pingback: Tom Tom Says: Integrity is a Core Leadership Trait

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