Humility and effective leadership

It has been a busy year for death in the United States. The coronavirus killed more Americans in the last two months than died in the Vietnam War. The world has been disrupted and the collateral damage is omnipresent. Catastrophic events such as COVID-19 are hard to predict. They expose weaknesses in society and reveal the consequences of earlier bad decisions such as failing to diversify supply chains.

The pandemic has placed extraordinary demands on business and government leaders. Its scale and attendant uncertainty, unpredictability, and ambiguity make it challenging to navigate the crisis.

Crises also demonstrate that recovery is most likely under effective leaders who lead with humility, make tough decisions, tell the truth, and are able to identify and deploy resources with dispatch. Leadership matters and character is foundational to good leadership. Character refers to the distinctive qualities of an individual and, as Aristotle said character is revealed through action.

There are scores of books, articles, and studies about leadership. They often include a checklist of the characteristics that cumulatively constitute effective leadership, including vision, accountability, courage, drive, collaboration, integrity and more, many more.

One trait that receives insufficient attention is humility. If leadership has a secret sauce that may well be it, and humility seems to be in short supply today. Humility has nothing to do with being weak or indecisive. Put simply, a humble leader understands the things he or she doesn’t know, so they listen. It improves their hearing as well as helping them get smart on issues.

Successful leaders rely on the opinions and decisions of other people in times of crisis, especially when the cause of the crisis is outside their area of expertise. Effective leaders project self -confidence and authenticity when they check their egos at the door and acknowledge their failures and weaknesses. They understand the world is just too complicated for them to have all the answers.

Humility and ambition are not always at odds. Consider, for example, the case of Abraham Lincoln, who never let ego get in the way of his ambition to create an enduring union.

In contrast, consider leaders who don’t want people who say no. They are suspicious of any plan that doesn’t originate with them. You can argue with them but you must be careful how and when. You are better to give way on every possible point until the vital point, to position yourself as in need of guidance rather than appearing to believe that you know better than they do. Remember, these types of leaders want more than to be advised of their power, they want to be told they are always right. Other people commit errors or deceive them with false information. They are insecure in their insecurities.

These self-absorbed leaders who tell the truth less than half the time can’t be trusted to keep their promises, often pass off blame to others, and are especially bad at understanding and caring for people, they lack empathy. Leaders who do not have the humility to recognize their own errors and omissions will not make necessary course corrections to ensure success. Such leaders don’t catch the joke that if you think you are the smartest person in the room, you are in the wrong room and the only one who is incapable of learning.

Humility is a mindset for leaders who want to do big things in a world filled with uncertainty and ambiguity. These leaders motivate and empower those around them and listen well. As C.S. Lewis said: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”

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