Holy Week in preparation for Easter is upon us when Christians commemorate the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a fitting time to revisit an excellent habit exemplified by this most perfect of all leaders: humility.
Humility enables leaders to recognize real limits and accept others as their equal, or even their superior, in any given situation. Humility is needed to lead because it helps us to trust — have faith— in others to do the work they have the potential to do. Without humility, leaders become skeptical of others, even control freaks, and convinced that they know better than everybody else what needs to be done.
Consider these 4 points to increase your understanding of real humility while avoiding false humility:
1. Humility is reality-centered:
Humility is really quite simple: it is the recognition and acceptance of reality through open-mindedness to truth. Humble leaders grasp their own capabilities in relation to others and the situation at hand. I once observed a CEO being confronted by an angry customer, who in all likelihood was well below the CEO in terms of economic and educational achievement. Despite the disparity, the CEO listened attentively and respectfully, recognizing that the customer had superior knowledge of and experience with the company’s products. That was true humility. No false pretense; just listening and learning.
2. Two primary opposites of humility:
Sometimes we’re able to truly understand things by defining their opposites. Pride is an excessive desire for and estimation of one’s own excellence. Humility is opposed by two forms of pride on a spectrum of self-centeredness, ranging from extreme overconfidence to exaggerated lowliness (false humility). Extremely overconfident individuals often either decline to acknowledge their limits or scorn the rightful authority of others because they can’t accept that a bigger reality might be at work. On the other hand, pride might also take the form of exaggerated lowliness when the prideful person makes a show of submitting to another simply because his or her ego desperately seeks the label, “humble leader.” This person strives to earn praise by showing “humility” even when such conduct has no bearing on the situation or amounts to an abdication of the leader’s duty. Such pride in one’s “humility” is a pathetic craving for attention.
There is a story told of a young Abraham Lincoln that draws a sharp contrast with the prideful pictures above. According to the story, a young man, consumed in his own thoughts while leaving a hospital, barreled right over Abe Lincoln. Rather than apologize, the young man yelled, “watch where you’re going, you long-legged fool!” Lincoln’s sense of humility was revealed in his response, “What is troubling you, young man?” Lincoln had been wronged, but his humility enabled him to accept the bigger reality that the young man’s troubles likely far outweighed Lincoln’s minor bruises. The dignified response betrayed neither pride nor modesty.
3. “True humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.”
The above quote from C. S. Lewis builds upon the Jewish moral tradition, which views deliberate attempts to achieve humility as self-defeating. Dwelling too much on one’s own self is directly at odds with the goal of humility, which is a focus on reality and what is truly good rather than the self.
A Hasidic tale begins with a righteous leader (called a Zaddik) counseling a man frustrated by his lack of success. “All my life,” the man complained, “I have tried to heed the maxim that ‘one who runs away from fame will find that fame pursues him.’ And yet, when I run away from fame, fame never seems to pursue me.” The Zaddik replied: “The trouble is that though you do run away from fame, you are always looking over your shoulder to see if it is chasing after you.”
4. Humility is open-mindeness to the truth.
Humility cannot occur without accepting deserved criticism and compliments. A fundamental indicator of a lack of humility is an inability, even anger, toward receiving criticism from others. During my time as a coach, I have noticed that the degree of self-improvement leaders experience tends to be in direct proportion to their willingness to seek and submit to feedback from their team, peers and superiors. When leaders submit to this kind of feedback despite the humiliation they might feel, they begin to grow in true open-mindedness. At the same time, humility requires that leaders project a level of confidence that reflects their true knowledge, skills and abilities. Leaders must be able to accept a compliment, and to give a frank assessment of their own abilities, when the situation requires it.
Note: this article first appeared in the Biz Journal