How Humility Translates to Great Leadership

Next time you walk by a playground, stop and listen for a couple of minutes.

Next time you walk by a playground, stop and listen for a couple of minutes. I guarantee you won’t have long to wait before you hear, Mommy, Daddy, look at me.

Recognition is part of what we live for. And in the right measure, it’s a healthy part of human connection.

However, all too often, it’s the drug of choice for leaders who have gotten hooked on external feedback that validates them as valued and worthwhile.

That can lead to an inflated ego coupled with, ironically, raging insecurity. Ego turned outward in a form that is fixated on look at me is motivated by fear. If people don’t look at me, I guess I’m not any good, right? I become addicted to that external feedback. Look at me. I have a lot of money. I have a lot of power. Look at me because of what the world says.

Although a person like that may appear to others to be powerful, that need is, in reality, a profound weakness. In the absence of the spotlight, who are you?

People in organizations whose leaders are locked into these kinds of dynamics simply disconnect. They don’t engage. They hold back, and their resentments multiply.

The ego-based, recognition-hungry, light-stealing, self-centered executive will actually start to experience the impacts of that collective negativity. He will run out of followers, and he will eventually and certainly fail.

Leaders who have come full circle, who lead from a place of humility and authenticity, know who they are even in the absence of the spotlight. They lead with a tremendous sense of determination coupled with a humble sense of appreciation for the other people on their team. They know they can’t do it on their own and that their role is to help people keep the bigger picture in mind. They communicate that, and then they get out of the way.

That kind of leadership creates a rarefied atmosphere. People want to be around you. People want to work for you. People want to be on your team. They want to give you every ounce of their creative potential, every ounce of their dedication, pour every ounce of their heart into the job because they know it’s fully appreciated.

No one is stealing credit for their contribution. They are able to really maximize themselves, their skills and their input without a big executive or power-hungry manager taking the credit.

Let me offer a few examples that can move us out of the conceptual and into what this might look like in the real world.

One very straightforward way a leader may show this kind of simple humility is by extending patience toward a colleague who is having a hard time getting their head around a new approach or a change. Not pushing, not talking, but listening, really looking into and sitting with what is going on with that person. That can be a powerful example of putting the other first while also creating space for breakthrough performance that comes from within, not from the boss putting on the screws.

Another real life example that made my day recently was coming into a meeting and seeing the CEO coming down the hall. He was holding two cups of coffee: one for him and one for his assistant, who was going to be taking notes. A very small but powerful gesture and message.

I’ve also observed the ripple effect in one organization of the founding entrepreneur routinely spending time in the cafeteria, just hanging out having coffee. On Fridays he wears blue jeans and a beat-up flannel shirt and just shows up.

I’m convinced the astronomical growth this company has enjoyed over the last five to seven years is no coincidence.

These kinds of opportunities are available throughout every executive’s day. Open yourself up, and see what happens.

Up next: I see it; I get it. How do I live it? Cultivating humility as a leadership virtue.

11 comments on “How Humility Translates to Great Leadership

  1. I feel that the more leadership can make people feel comfortable, not necessarily lax, but relaxed in a work environment then you’ll produce happier and more productive workers. Make work seem less like work essentially.

  2. I think the bit about the CEO and the coffees is key, if you behave like a decent human being, people are going to like you, work hard for you and celebrate without doing anything special.

  3. Sure can appreciate the message that it’s the “little things” that speak volumes and garner respect. Also liked Navteg’s comment : “Good leadership brings its own recognition, you don’t need to grandstand to achieve it.” Looking forward to the next post on cultivating this virtue in daily work life.

  4. I agree with most of this, but I still feel there has to be some seperation, you can’t get too relaxed and comfortable with people working under you.

  5. The need for recognition isn’t healthy regardless of whether or not someone is in a leadership position, good work should speak for itself and bring its due by itslef, wasting time seeking it out is detrimental.

  6. I think a lot of this is fostered as children, especially in this day and age of everyone gets a trophy and what not, people need to lose and that life isn’t going to treat you special.

  7. One thing I try to keep in mind: “Normal” actually includes the broken parts that lead to self-centered behaviors – the opposite of humility. When I am treated in any unkind way – surly, aggressive, short, etc. I try to give them a break. Who knows what storyline is playing out in someone’s life? At the minimum, I try to move from “mad” at them, to “sad” for them to invoke kindness and understanding – even if part of me does not think they deserve it. I work on this and fail on a regular basis.

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