It is amazing how seldom humility is referenced in books about leadership and then, frequently, only by honorable mention. Why something so important for transformational leadership is so seldom discussed is beyond my comprehension.
Perhaps it’s because the topic is misunderstood. Perhaps it’s because humility itself is so elusive. Interestingly, humility’s antonym—pride—frequently is understood as something to be sought after and prized.
To be fair, we should acknowledge two distinct aspects of pride. The first is more positive, like when one says he or she is proud of someone else. Usually what is meant is that they have admiration for, or positive feelings toward, that person. It’s primarily a word used to suggest affirmation or acceptance of someone.
When defined as an antonym to humility, the meaning of pride altogether is different, and sadly, it is the way pride shows up in most of us. Webster defines this aspect of pride as “inordinate self-esteem; an unreasonable conceit of one’s own superiority in talents, beauty, wealth, accomplishments, rank or elevation in office, which manifests itself in lofty airs, distance, reserve, and often in contempt of others.” This pride is arrogant and destructive. This pride is a primary cause of most dysfunction, turf battles, and lack of alignment in organizations.
On a larger scale, pride also is the root cause of most injustice, societal ills, and suffering in the world today. A damning statement, so let’s examine the facts:
- When corporate chieftains set themselves above the law, above acceptable standards of behavior—those who act as if their corporations exist solely for their benefit, their prestige, their advancement, pride is the culprit.
- When leaders in all walks of life pursue personal agendas within the organization, or when they seek to control others to get their own way, pride is the driving force.
- When government officials faithlessly execute their duties in favor of their own recognition, prestige, power and reward, subjugating the common good for their own motivations, pride is the compelling factor.
- And, to bring the matter home, when you and your spouse engage in heated debates over different opinions and steadfastly refuse to relinquish control over seemingly insignificant matters, what do you believe might be the primary cause? Pride, perhaps?
The tragedy of pride is that pride is all about Me. It’s about what I think. It’s about what I want, what I need. The prideful Me claims control, battles for command, wields authority to secure the best position. The prideful Me insists on compliance, intimidates to gain respect, and quite literally expects recognition and reward.
Consider: Most disagreements among people—and even nations—arise from the clamoring of this narcissist Me. Pride results from the belief that I’m important enough, smart enough, capable enough, all-knowing enough, and deserving enough to take things into my own hands.
Instead, if we have any thought of saving our world, any hope of transforming society for the good, our attitude should be the opposite—that it’s not about Me, and there’s no particular reason why I should get what I want—because the world does not revolve around me.
Leadership pride is a root cause of lackluster performance in organizations. When leaders are self-focused, pursuing individual objectives for personal gain, the inevitable response and ultimate outcome includes too little collaboration, misalignment on goals and objectives, turf wars and politics, arrogance among the leadership group, employees who are unwilling, fearful or unmotivated, and poor business results.
Whether ineffective leaders, dysfunctional teams or low employee engagement, ultimately, it’s a values issue and at the core is Destructive Pride.
Undoubtedly, we’ve all observed self-focused leaders who fail to demonstrate sincere compassion and respect. Instead they create cultures where care and concern for others are afterthoughts, and where there’s a general lack of respect for people as individuals. This behavior extends to the way employees treat customers and suppliers, and to the way people within the organization relate to co-workers with differing points of view, different beliefs and different cultures.
These “destructive pride” leaders offer no accountability for their own behaviors and performance, yet they hold others accountable for outcomes and results. The problem here is that unaccountable leaders unwittingly create unaccountable organizations because trust is not established between leader and follower.
It becomes clear how pride perpetuates the problems in society today. Pride drives leaders to self-focus, causing them to concentrate efforts on what’s in it for them. Locally, this every-man-for-himself attitude leads to turf wars, personal agendas, self-serving behaviors and maneuvering. On a broader scale, those outside the leader’s circle of self-interest must make their own way, creating their own objectives, making their own rules. When significant numbers of leaders adopt a pride-driven, me-first mentality, the result is a virtual sea of corporate humanity taking a what’s in-it-for-me approach to work and home life.
On a positive note, Values-Based Leaders believe the ills that plague organizations, and even humanity as a whole, could be resolved if pride were eradicated. Transformation can occur if the destructive nature of pride is understood and the secret of humility embraced.
If humility is so unappreciated and misunderstood, is there any hope? In truth, I don’t know. What I do know is the solution must start with me…with us. As Gandhi said: “We must be the change we hope to see in the world.” That is our challenge. That is our hope.
Turning our attention to the antidote of pride, we consider the virtue of humility. First, a few thoughts on what humility isn’t. If we address misconceptions about humility, its positive attributes might be more readily embraced.
Imagine asking a confident, self-sufficient, successful group of leaders to define humility…perhaps they’d say humility has to do with false modesty, poor self-image, meekness, self-abasement, subjugation, humiliation, or even weakness – obviously, traits that are undesirable. If we understand humility in those terms, it’s a topic to be avoided at all costs, and if leaders embrace inaccurate notions of humility, it’s more likely they embrace false positive of pride.
The truth of humility provides a powerful and effective alternative to pride.
- Humility is not false modesty. Rather, it is a full appreciation of our talents, coupled with the realization that our abilities are gifts…and that these gifts are given for the benefit of others. When others observe us using our talent and ability for their benefit, they naturally respond with loyalty, contributing their best efforts for mutual achievement.
- Humility is not poor self-image. Instead, humility illuminates counterfeit aspects of our lives so that we may live authentically to the full extent of our capabilities and effectiveness. True humility enables us to be comfortable with ourselves—to actually be”
- Humility is neither meekness nor weakness. One definition of humility: ‘The voluntary descent from rank, dignity or just claims; submission to others in granting requests or performing acts which strict justice does not require. This definition of humility is far from weakness…it indicates great strength and confidence on the part of the leader.
- Humility is not involuntary subjugation or humiliation. If we live authentically, and voluntarily step aside for the sake of others, there is no subjugation or humiliation – we make the choice from a position of strength – it was not imposed on us.
Counter-intuitively, voluntary submission to humility results in increased leadership effectiveness and superior results. Ultimately humility enhances quality of life and provides a platform to positively transform the human condition. Far from being diminishing or dehumanizing, sincere humility enhances individual worth.
Truly humble leaders are honest with themselves about their abilities, disposition, and motives. They’re not ambitious for personal achievement, nor are they arrogant or boastful. They’re genuinely caring and respectful of others, and they’re serious in their commitment to better the lives of others. They persevere with a positive, uplifting attitude, even in the face of trials and hardships. They take responsibility for their performance and do not lay blame on others for their failures—and they genuinely appreciate and acknowledge the contributions of others.
Truly humble leaders are values-based.
Humility greatly impacts values espoused by a values-based leader.in fact, it is the basis for many other values. Considering humility within that framework, we see that being honest with one’s self and refusing arrogance reflect the value of integrity. Demonstrating care and respect suggest compassion. Serious commitment to selfless goals reflects purpose-driven behavior. Perseverance in the face of opposition requires courage. Personal responsibility equates to accountability. And one who genuinely appreciates acknowledges the need for others demonstrates gratitude.
Values-based leaders know that humility is a vital truth that connects them to others. It’s what makes them approachable and allows dependency on others – a dependency that causes them to rely on others’ abilities. Humility is the power of understanding that I can’t, but we can. For the follower it actualizes the collective power in community. For the leader it is manifested in the power of the team—the power of us.
While leaders may create strategy, strategy is executed at the base levels of an organization. It is humility that enables the leader to connect with the lowest level of an organization to ensure appropriate execution and achieve desired results.
When all is said and done, the truth is that humility is the one indispensable value of an effective, Values-Based Leader.