There is something remarkable about humble leaders.
It could be the way they make you feel when they communicate; it could be the fact that you feel drawn to going out of your way to be a part of what they're doing; or it could be the way they model what you want to become.
According to research in the Academy of Management Journal, humble leaders actually "embolden individuals to aspire to their highest potential and enables them to make the incremental improvements necessary to progress toward that potential."
Being a humble leader pays off in the performance category, but what's most remarkable is the vast majority of humble leaders have every reason, because of their accomplishments to reject humility, but instead they embrace it. They don't just talk about it, but it's built into who they are and how they lead. It's as if deep down, they understand that the path to effective leadership is paved with humility, not pride. Great leaders understand that the path to effective leadership is paved with humility, not pride.
Most leaders grasp this concept because, before their achievements, they encountered strain in the form of failures, challenges, and or heartaches.
What is Humility?
When you think of some famous recent leaders like Donald Trump, Elon Musk, or Jeff Bezos, humility is far from the first leadership trait that comes to mind. Whether you believe those leaders have humility or not, we often don't think of humility in leaders because we don't know what it is.
Websters defines it as; freedom from pride or arrogance, the quality or state of being humble. Being humble isn't a lack of confidence or not believing in yourself. In fact, quite the opposite is true. To have freedom from pride and arrogance, it must start from a place of introspection.
C.S. Lewis said, "humility isn't thinking less of yourself, it's thinking of yourself less."
In an article a few years ago, the Washington Post found: "True humility, scientists have learned, is when someone has an accurate assessment of both his strengths and weaknesses, and he sees all this in the context of the larger whole. He's a part of something far greater than he. He knows he isn't the center of the universe. And he's both grounded and liberated by this knowledge. Recognizing his abilities, he asks how he can contribute. Recognizing his flaws, he asks how he can grow."
So the natural question is, if you struggle with humility or want to be a more humble leader, how do you do it? It won't be easy, but here's how to get started.
Start with the Truth
I have written before, "all improvement starts with the truth." When it comes to humility, being a humble leader also starts with the truth. Philadelphia 76ers basketball coach Doc Rivers said, "Average players want to be left alone. Good players want to be coached. Great players want to be told the truth."
The truth is every position that exists today will one day be held by someone else. The President of the United States, The Pope, and even your current role will one day be someone else's seat. Allow this truth to sink into your soul.
You have a significant role to play while you have it, and you should give everything you can to do meet your potential, but it can't and shouldn't be all about you. It has to be about elevating others and helping those around you become the best version of themselves.
Stay a Student
Some of the signs of an arrogant leader include; not listening, always wanting to be right, avoiding accountability, and thinking they know it all. A humble leader looks and feels much different. They admit when they make mistakes and are obsessed with learning.
TD Jakes mentioned in his new book, Don't Drop the Mic, "The world is a university, and everyone in it is a teacher. Make sure you wake up and go to school your entire life learning from the good and the bad."
It reminds me of when I interviewed Villanova's head coach Jay Wright for an episode of the Follow My Lead Podcast right after they had won the national championship. He heard a quote from Napoleon about leadership during the show, and I watched him grab a pen and write it down. After we had finished recording, he said, "I hadn't heard that quote, and I want to use it with my team."
Wright had every right to feel like he had learned it all because of his team's success, but instead, he continued to embrace the mindset of staying a student, which you and I must do as well. If at any point you stop learning, you will be dying.
One of the most significant mistakes leaders in choosing pride over humility is avoiding accountability. Instead of inviting people in their lives to be feedback vehicles, they decide to go it alone. In the beginning, it isn't a big deal. But as time goes on, the lies and thoughts in one's head become their reality. Those thoughts then become engrained in their behavior, and it's what other people experience.
The vaccine for this situation is to embrace accountability. Put people around you who keep you grounded and are willing to have difficult dialogues when they recognize something is off. Then you keep an open mind and heart to the words they say without getting defensive or making excuses.
I recognize this is easy to write but difficult to put into practice. But the best part, is when your team sees you embracing accountability, they will embrace it as well. This is described well in a visual model called the Accountability Circle from Building the Best below.
The best leaders indeed understand that the path to effective leadership is paved with humility and not pride. However, it doesn't mean it's easy, or it doesn't mean you won't have moments where pride or ego win you over. The key is to recognize these moments and get back on the humility path as quickly as possible.
About the Author: John Eades is the CEO of LearnLoft, a leadership development company helping executives and managers to lead their best. He was named one of LinkedIn’s Top Voices in Management & Workplace. John is also the author of Building the Best: 8 Proven Leadership Principles to Elevate Others to Success. You can follow him on Instagram @johngeades.
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