Kevin P. Dincher
Did you see Star Trek into Darkness? It’s an enjoyable and entertaining movie—which is the most I expect from the crew of the Enterprise. A moment early in the film, however, made me sit up. Spock is in a volcano trying to abort an eruption. [Vulcan in a volcano? Someone been reading Roman mythology?] Although the mission is successful, it violates Star Fleet’s Prime Directive against interfering with the development of alien civilizations, and Kirk is demoted. His mentor, Commander Pike, summarizes the problem: “There’s greatness in you, but there’s not an ounce of humility.”
Humility carries a great deal of negative baggage. Humility evokes timidity, indecisiveness and weakness. Humility smells of pretense; under the guise of humility, people portray themselves as less than they really believe themselves to be—and in the extreme become like Dickens’ Uriah Heap: obsequious, insincere and the ultimate “yes man.” In addition, there is a long history of equating humility with self-deprecation and embracing a negative self-image; such “humility” is self-hatred and not conducive to developing exemplary leaders.
Consequently, despite research (e.g., Jim Collins, Good to Great) and claims that “humility in leadership is back on the executive conference room table” (Executive Ethics: Ethical Dilemmas and Challenges for the C-suite), we don’t often talk about humility and leadership—except for religious leaders. Remember how after the election of Pope Frances the media hyped his every action as signs of humility? Of the dozen leadership books on my bookshelf only one mentions humility—and it devotes barely a page to something the authors say is characteristic of exemplary leaders. Additionally, they present humility merely as an antidote to excessive ego rather a value itself: you’ll be a better leader if you recognize you aren’t infallible. True enough. But is that there is to humility?
Humility is Self-Knowledge
The word humility comes from the Latin humus, meaning ground or earth—which was sometimes used in the sense of being grounded. To be humble is to be grounded in reality with a strong and healthy sense of self.” Humble leaders know their real talents and accomplishments—and are comfortable enough in their own skins to talk about those talents and accomplishments honestly. They have no need to inflate themselves, to brag or to be competitive. On the other hand, they don’t deflate themselves either. If you are smart, you are lying—not being humble—if you act as though you are not. Humble leaders also know and acknowledge the reality of their weaknesses, biases and blind spots. We all have them—although successes can make us forget that, and fear of failure can keep us from admitting it. This is not beating up yourself, and it is not seeing yourself as less talented than you are. Humility is honestly knowing yourself and becoming comfortable in your own skin.
Self-Knowledge is Strength
Grounded in the reality of genuine talents, humble leaders start from a position of strength. They know what they are good at and can tap into those talents and abilities effectively. With a deflated self-image, people start from a position of weakness; seeing themselves as less talented than they are, they deny their talents and gifts—and can’t access them or use them effectively. An inflated self-image also weakens people. They struggle to access talents and skills they only think they possess. And with even a modicum of self-awareness, in the back of their minds they keep Oz saying, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” All that smoke-and-mirrors is stressful and wastes energy.
A Creative Environment
Paradoxically, humility’s strength also comes from being grounded in the reality of our own shortcomings—and being comfortable with not being perfect. Humble leaders know that they can’t do it alone—and aren’t threatened by other talented people. Consequently, they don’t surround themselves with people who are exactly like themselves or who think exactly as they do. They select talented, self-confident people who complement their own strengths and weakness, who have different personalities, backgrounds, experiences and perspectives, and who are willing to question and challenge them. They don’t micromanage people into acting exactly as they would; they trust people to succeed by doing things their own way. This diversity of personalities, perspectives and skills generate a dynamic, creative, learning environment. It’s Not About You. Strength also comes from knowing it’s not about you. Leadership is never about you. If it is, you’re not a leader—you’re a narcissist. One hallmark of exemplary leaders is selflessness. George Bradt, who writes for Forbes.com, explains: “One of the most fundamental lessons of leadership is that if you’re a leader, it’s not about you. It’s about the people following you. The best leaders devote almost all of their energy to inspiring and enabling others. Taking care of them is a big part of this.” In Good to Great, Jim Collins describes the leader who combines personal humility with professional will as a “Level 5 Leader”— the top of his leadership hierarchy. In 1996, Collins began researching what makes a great company. He started with 1,435 companies and ended up selecting 11 truly great ones, all headed by “Level 5 Leaders.” What these leaders had in common was an it’s-not-about-me mindset. They focused on others. They shared credit for success easily—and readily accepted responsibility for mistakes. They were not threatened by other’s success; instead, mentoring and molding other leaders energized them. As a result, people followed them because they wanted to.
In short, humility gives strength through growing self-knowledge, supporting creative environment and focusing on others. Humble leaders desire success so that their organizations and people can thrive. I am not sure humility is really back on the executive conference room table, but it never should have been off the table—even for those of us not likely to captain a starship or become pope.
Kevin P Dincher is an organization development consultant, professional development coach and educator with 30 years of experience that includes not only OD consulting but also work in adult education, counseling psychology and crisis management, program and operations management, and human resources. Kevin currently provide services to non-profit organizations through a partnership with Professionals in Philanthropy.