Note stepsfrom Art: One of the true joys of my blogging experience comes from meeting and collaborating with some remarkable people.  Mary Jo Asmus is one of those remarkable people.  She writes an outstanding leadership blog offering powerful and relationship-focused perspectives on all things leadership.  I don’t miss a post of hers and encourage you to check out her site and make certain to subscribe.  We collaborated a few months ago for Two Voices on: The Words of a Leader, and enjoyed the experience and the reactions so much that we vowed to do it again.

Well, we’re back.  Mary Jo reached out to me a few weeks ago and raised the topic of “Humility and the Leader,” and we were both so interested in exploring this issue that we went off to our separate corners and the output is reflected in the two posts below.  While the posts don’t necessarily reflect a point-counterpoint perspective, they do bring two unique perspectives to what turned out to be a challenging issue.  My gut indicates that we might even elicit some interesting feedback from the many thoughtful readers that frequent our respective blogs.

OK, enough of my blathering and time to get to the posts. Thanks, Mary Jo for your inspiration!

Humility and the Effective Leader-Mary Jo’s Thoughts

So often, when we think of leadership, we think in terms of the charismatic leader, or the bold leader. We think of leaders as bigger than life, exuding confidence and perhaps, arrogance.

For most, “humility” isn’t a word that comes to mind when considering the leaders we think we know. This is unfortunate, because the best leaders I know have been able to stay self confident without crossing the line into arrogance through the simple act of remaining humble. It isn’t easy, especially for leaders who’ve had big success.

When we are humble, we understand and invite the gifts that others bring to our effective leadership.

When we are humble, we invite participation by others.

When we are humble, we are open to new learning.

When we are humble, we have empathy and compassion.

Arrogance breeds behavior that isn’t inclusive, diverse of thought, creative, or enlightening. We know that we are not humble when we’ve become arrogant.

How do we know when we’ve crossed the line into arrogance?

Be vigilant. Listen to yourself. You’ve crossed the line into arrogance when:

  • You take all the credit: real leaders know that their success is a group effort. When we are humble, credit goes to all who share in your success.
  • You are the smartest person in the room: learning has ceased. You feel as if you have nothing new to learn from those around you. When we are humble, we are in a state of inquiry; not knowing all the answers, which allows us to continually learn.
  • You judge those around you as “less” than yourself: you’ve put yourself on a pedestal. Nobody can do anything better than you can. It’s not important where you are in relation to everyone else. What is important is that we push our own edges outward to continually evolve.
  • You’ve lost empathy and compassion: you just can’t seem to identify with those in a tough spot or feel sympathy for those in sorrow. When we are humble, we can walk in the shoes of others and we can reach out to them.

Are you staying humble, or have you crossed the line into arrogance? Spend some time thinking about this question and asking for feedback from those you trust on what they are observing in your behavior. And if you’ve crossed the line, call your executive coach to help you get back to humility.

Humility and the Effective Leader-Art’s Thoughts

I concede the dictionary war to all of you that will turn to the word “humility” and see a definition that says, “a modest or low view of one’s own importance; humbleness,” or, something as profound as “the quality or state of being humble.”

These are not definitions and words that you tend to associate with successful leaders, and yet, I cannot help but observe that many of the most impactful and successful individuals that I’ve worked with and around have an element of humility in their demeanor and an approach that exudes a quiet but positive self-confidence.

Is humility one of the secret ingredients of successful leaders?

To me, humility in a leader is best described as having the self-confidence borne of experience to be comfortable in your own leadership skin, without having to project to the world that you’re on top and in charge.

To be humble as a leader does not mean that you are weak, but rather that you are thoughtful, considerate and confident in the people around you and their ability to solve problems and learn and solve more problems.

It takes time and experience and self-awareness and raw courage to develop and project humility and confidence at the same time.  Both are essential.

We generally don’t come into the leadership world with a sense of humility.  Many of the mistakes of early leaders stem from a misguided belief that To Assert = To Lead.

Unfortunately, many carry this belief in assertion equals leadership with them as they climb the ladder.  The earlier over-stated and over-projected self-confidence often evolves into arrogance and then hubris. The collateral damage from the leaders that follow this evolutionary path is huge.

The path towards confident humility is considerably more difficult and is filled with its own opportunities for derailment. Those that act humble may be misperceived as weak or uncertain.  The To Assert =To Lead crowd likes to hire their own kind in some form of twisted Darwinian practice that ensures the survival of their kind, fully understanding that they may very well be hiring the individual that steps on their back in the climb up the ladder.

Alternatively, I submit that humble leaders are never weak.  Like some martial arts experts, they have the skills to strike and defeat, but choose to use them only to defend or to fight for what is right.  Fighting or striking out is the last resort of the incompetent who lack the wisdom and intellectual tools and substance to fight fair over concepts and ideas.  One of the strengths of the humble leader is that everyone knows that he or she is capable of fighting and winning. This “walk softly and carry a big stick” approach buys the ability for the leader to cultivate his or her humility.

Like so many difficult tasks in life, there is no magic pill or simple guidance that anyone can offer on becoming an effective leader.  You learn by doing and YOU choose your own style.  I regard leadership both as a profession and as a journey and I encourage people that when they come to the fork in the road on choosing a leadership style, to turn away from the To Assert = To Lead path and start down the more difficult road and spiritual journey that focuses on others over self.   I also encourage them to keep their eyes wide open and carry a big stick.

The Bottom Line:

Never underestimate the ability of the quietly confident and slightly humble leader to inspire others to move mountains.