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Humility in Leadership

By: for Huffington Post on Oct. 30, 2014
Photo Credits:

Mahatma Gandhi during the "Salt March" in 1930

Our gut response might be "humility and leadership can't possibly go hand-in-hand. They blend as well as oil and water." Generally, when we hear the term "humility," we imagine an individual who lacks confidence, is weak and unsure of themselves and in general is a pushover. It's true that if a leader demonstrates any of the aforementioned traits, everyone will walk all over them. Humility is a term that is generally referenced by preachers in the pulpit, encouraging their congregations to "turn the other cheek." 

When we hear the term "leader," we imagine someone strong, confident, an expert problem-solver, has all the answers, and someone who can lead the charge; someone who goes in and carries out all the injured soldiers from a battlefield. 

Forbes article provides a balanced perspective on the place of humility in leadership. 

A humble leader is secure enough to recognize his or her weaknesses and to seek the input and talents of others. By being receptive to outside ideas and assistance, creative leaders open up new avenues for the organization and for their employees.

The two key points stressed here are: secure and recognize. 

It takes humility to recognize and admit one's weaknesses. The admission doesn't need to take place in front of everyone, but at least to the person in the mirror. Without acknowledging our weak points, we can't improve upon them and grow. Acknowledgement is step one. Taking pertinent action for bringing about change is a necessary second step. Denying our shortcomings even after receiving the same feedback repeatedly is a sign of ego and will restrict personal and professional development. So, we can conclude that humility equals growth. 

Being secure means that we're not afraid to seek help and guidance from others. Acknowledging others' opinions and ideas is not an indication of a lack of competence. Rather, it's a sign that one is not threatened by the valuable contribution of others. It creates an open and inspiring environment where creativity is welcomed and encouraged. This will lead to a more productive and positive atmosphere.

The articles continues: "What we teach about leadership in business schools simply does not prepare students for leading, because we ignore the importance of humility in business and beyond." 

In his book, The One Minute Manager, Ken Blanchard states "People with humility do not think less of themselves; they just think about themselves less."

We move through the world with a paradigm in which we place ourselves in the center. We try and create an environment in which we can flourish and succeed. The problem with this model is that we have a tendency to become overly focused on ourselves while forgetting the needs of others around us. This can lead us into different levels of selfishness and isolation. 

Putting others first isn't the first thing that comes to mind while living in a "every man for himself" culture. From a very early age, we are taught to compete and be the best we can be. Often times, what we're not taught is to be thoughtful along the way and not neglect and crush others. Those who are able to dominate over others are glorified and as we grow, we try to emulate that behavior. 

Since this attitude is woven into the very fabric of our society, when it comes to personal success, the trait of humility is almost all but forgotten. It isn't talked about or seen as relevant. 

Although it's never too late to try and inculcate humility into our character, it needs to be instilled into us from an early age. Once we become hardened by the "me first" attitude, it will be very difficult to adopt. 

Learning to develop a humble attitude makes us more human. Otherwise, we will walk around pretending we're infallible. This attitude will only distance us from others and ourselves. Gandhi, one of the greatest leaders in all of history, states:

"I claim to be a simple individual liable to err like any other fellow mortal. I own, however, that I have humility enough to confess my errors and to retrace my steps."

Humility means being honest. When a leader can demonstrate honesty and look back on one's actions and behavior, it will provide a tremendous opportunity for personal development. Even though it goes against the grain of our society and the teachings that we've learned, the development of humility can help us cut through the wall of our ego and help us overcome most conflicts and obstacles and help us create harmonious situations in our personal and professional lives.

Even monks and serious meditators will admit that developing humility is no easy task. However, if we hope to move in that direction, we can all take out five to 10 minutes a day to reflect on our behavior and interactions and see how we can make some positive changes towards a more humble approach to life.

[ confidence ] [ humility ] [ leadership ]