Strength Through Humility
The power of humble leadership and why those who associate humility with weakness are dead wrong.
A few weeks ago, we hosted our first-ever summit at the company I work for, OneVision Resources. This was essentially a two-day seminar we put together for twenty or so of our best partners. As part of the planning process, I was tasked with leading the development of all of the educational content we would present during the event.
As you can imagine, this was a big project. About three weeks prior to show time, I was struck by a terrifying realization—there was no way in hell I was going to get it all done in time, at least not with my current approach. I needed to come at it from a different angle. I ended up calling my team together and delegating a lot of the content development that I had originally planned to do myself. In hindsight, this was an obvious decision. But at the time, it didn’t appear that way. After all, this event was my baby. I had a clear vision and a lot of very specific ideas about exactly how the content should be presented.
It turns out, I was wrong, or at least misguided. What my team put together was exemplary. The event was a huge success. And the content was, in many respects, objectively better than anything I would have been likely to come up with. This was a humbling experience. First, having to admit to myself that I needed help (a deceptively difficult thing to do). Second, recognizing that there are members of my team who can mop the floor with me when it comes to this sort of work. It all served as a powerful reminder about the importance of humility in leadership.
Fast forward to today’s super-charged, hyper-connected world, and humility gets a bad rap. People associate it with being timid, weak, or subservient—clearly not qualities that any good leader would aspire to. Instead, the messages we receive from social media and the 24/7 news cycle are clear. To be a great leader, we need to stand up and stand out. We need to always have an opinion. We must always have the answers. And we need to break out of our shells and be more like the celebrity CEOs and leaders the press loves to lionize:
But think back on all the leaders you’ve ever worked with. No really, stop what you’re doing for a second and think about it. Did they match the description above? Perhaps some of them did. But I’m willing to be that many of them, perhaps most, could more accurately be described like this:
Open to new ideas
In a word, humble.
A host of books as well as articles from leading publications like the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Harvard Business Review, Inc., Fast Company, and Entrepreneur all agree that humility is not a barrier to great leadership, it is a direct contributor to it. So why is it that the misconceptions about humility being a weakness persist? Perhaps it’s because humility is inherently difficult to spot. By their very definition, humble leaders tend to fly under the radar. Unlike excessive pride, which flies in our face, it takes a discerning eye to recognize the strength that humility requires of us.
Our day-to-day lives can often leave our egos feeling bruised. Perhaps a co-worker provides you with harsh feedback. Maybe you get passed over for a promotion. Or perhaps you fail to get what you wanted out of an important negotiation. How do you respond? Do you lash out in anger? Retreat and sulk? Dig in your heels? Exert your power to push your agenda? Plot an end-around, or worse yet, a way to exact revenge?
Or do you have the strength to humble yourself? Can look inward and ask yourself the difficult questions? Do you allow for the possibility that maybe your co-worker’s tough words had merit? Do you consider that perhaps your colleague really did deserve the promotion over you? Are you introspective enough to reflect on what you could have done better in the negotiation? We all feel slighted or ashamed from time to time. Only through humility and not prideful weakness, can we truly grow from these setbacks.
Easier said than done, of course. In the last two years, I’ve gone from having zero direct reports at work to leading a group of five amazingly talented individuals. I’ve also encountered innumerable personal struggles in my quest to be the best father and husband possible. The journey is nothing if not humbling. And yet, if I’m honest with myself, I see examples everywhere of me letting my pride get in the way.
I catch myself holding fast to a weak position at work because I fear losing face. I refuse to apologize for my part in a marital spat because I believe my wife should say sorry first. I don’t delegate tasks I otherwise should because I think no one could possibly do it as well as I can. And the list goes on and on.
We all have our own examples of prideful weakness. Strength through humility requires more. It requires that we:
Allow our beliefs to be challenged
Accept that our assumptions and ideas might be wrong
Admit to, apologize for, and learn from our mistakes
Trust in those around us
Seek a deep understanding of our own flaws and shortcomings
And work tirelessly to improve upon them
So what kind of leader are you? If you are not deliberately cultivating humility in yourself and in your organization, you are missing an opportunity. Exercising humility is arguably one of the best ways to help those around us rise to their potential. And what higher calling could there possibly be for a leader? So remember, despite what misconceptions you might be battling, it’s not about being a great leader in spite of your humility, it’s about being a great leader because of it.