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Humble Leader – Oxymoron or Winning Combination…

Written by Terri Wallin

Can you be a leader and possess humility? Hopefully you have already come to the same conclusion as me – “Humble Leader” is a winning combination.

Humility is, for many leaders, one of the most difficult traits to master.  There is a certain amount of “ego” necessary to take on leading an organization – leadership is just not for the faint of heartKeeping your ego in check is necessary in order to accomplish great things for your organization.  Working with a humble leader is simply much more enjoyable than with someone who has a large degree of arrogance.

Humble leaderHumility is learned and is a process.  If you are like me, the learning is over a life time and often lessons come the hard way.  It took time to see that the more I let go, the more effective my leadership style became.  Scouring literature, that seems to be a similar experience for many of us – we grow when we let go. 

In The Paradox of Humility in American Business and Society, author Doug Guthrie provides a personal example of learning humility upon reflection of performance in a past role.  Often that is the case – we learn the most after we fail or haven’t performed like we hoped.  He makes a point in the article that many academic organizations don’t focus on teaching humility, but rather on how a person can get ahead of others.

Many people equate humility with weakness; however it is just the opposite.  It is the art of getting yourself out of the way so that others can be acknowledged and help accomplish great things in your organization.  It is giving credit to others without taking credit.  It is acknowledging greatness in your team rather than bringing attention to yourself.

Many dictionary resources define humility by using the antonym.  Often it is lack of arrogance or pride.  It is often defined as modest and is spelled out as a virtue.  David J. Bobb who is an author and writer on the subject, has an article that outlines the traits of arrogance followed by humility in two very famous Americans, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. Upon reading, it confirms that humility is a process and happens over time.

Humility is one trait necessary for transformation, personally and organizationally.  When the leader is humble, teams perform well.  Credit is appropriately shared and there is more pride in the work done by employees. When modeled, it is a trait others tend to emulate. The focus isn’t on how much the executive can make or take from the company, rather, how the organization can serve the community optimally.

In the Guardian, there was an article in December 2013 entitled Is Uruguary’s President Jose’ Mujica the world’s most humble leader? The article includes a sub-title about how the president lives humbly in terms of his home surroundings.  In addition he flies economy class and donates much of what he earns.  Putting others before himself seems to be his genuine operating style.

Humility and leadership are a successful combination for transformation.  Here are 6 ways you can evaluate your ego threshold and embark on a further path of humility:

  1. Enlist a trusted colleague to tell you the truth about your ego level.  If you are told that arrogance is more evident than humility, ask for examples which will help you with self-change.
  2. Ask your trusted colleague to give you feedback six-months to a year after you have begun to work on humility to see if s/he has noticed change.
  3. Ask a trusted friend about evidence or lack thereof of humility in your personal life.  This will help you see if there is a difference in your behavior at work versus in your personal life.  Ask them regularly for feedback on your ability to change behavior.
  4. Be a good student to yourself in meetings where you can observe your behavior with others and learn to evaluate your responses – body language as well as your verbal words.
  5. Identify the drivers for your behavior and what it would take for you to change.
  6. Implement your ideas to change and evaluate your progress over time.

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