The subtle art of humility

“You can never have an impact on society if you have not changed yourself.” – Nelson Mandela

I doubt there is a more lethal character trait than pride or arrogance. It can single-handedly divide an organization, crumple a government, or turn an entire people group against another. We’ve all encountered that one person who believed they were the smartest and most important in the room. When they occupy a leadership position it inevitably wreaks havoc.

History provides a steady stream of leaders whose ultimate demise was rooted in their ego and self-importance. The ancient Greeks called this hubris. The world’s long list of arrogant leaders includes people such as Alexander the Great, the Egyptian King Khufu, and Joseph Stalin.

Ever heard of Linda Wachner, the former CEO of Warnaco? Under her leadership the clothing company quadrupled in size and took on major designer brands in the 90’s. Her drive and work ethic gave her a fearsome reputation and caught the attention of corporations across the world. Wachner was also known for her harsh leadership style and insatiable desire for money. The latter attributes led the company down a road to bankruptcy. Ignoring the advice of members on her team, she put items on sale across the nation. Instead of increasing revenue like Wachner hoped, the reduced prices devalued the products in customers’ eyes. The company lost $334 million in 2000 and dismissed Wachner shortly thereafter.

How does pride in a leader create a path of destruction? It breaks trust, blocks the advice of others, and keeps us from learning from our mistakes. Wachner clearly was an accomplished businesswoman. You don’t see success like hers based on mere luck. Sadly, her arrogance and lack of respect towards others drove a wedge between her and her team. Ultimately, pride isolated her, and the last thing we want as a leader is to be isolated.

On the other hand, humble leadership serves as an open invitation to trust. It prioritizes the well-being of other people and not personal gain. Humility knows how to take the back seat and let others shine.

It is easy to recognize someone with a big ego, but humility comes in many shapes and sizes. Here are some tells of a humble leader:

  1.  Learns from mistakes Nothing can knock us down a few notches like failure. Taking that failure, owning our part in it, and learning from our errors takes true humility. Primarily because we have to admit that we were wrong. And let’s be honest… that’s the hardest part.

  2. Seeks out other ideas No one knows it all, and everyone hates the person that thinks they do. Humility not only considers the ideas of others, but actively seeks them out.

  3. Gives others the spotlight Humble leadership can cast extraordinary vision on a stage with a microphone. It also quietly encourages the greatness out of others. 
  4. Recognizes authority and expertise Lastly, humility acknowledges leaders and authority figures in the room. If necessary, it readily takes a back seat and honors the insight brought to the table.

 Like most character traits, humility is a learned behavior. It is never too early to start practicing humility or too late to break egotistical habits. Intentionally work with your teams to identify areas where you could build more trust by incorporating others’ ideas and highlighting the accomplishments of your people. It may take work, but it is well worth the personal investment.


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